Like the Smiths, the Pixies had a very unique sound already established by their debut. Their sound, however, would prove exceptionally mutable over the years, while the Smiths' tended to remain somewhat static.
Still, this EP already presents a number of the trademarks that would come to define the Pixies sound: lush guitars, memorable vocals (be it psychotic shouting from Black Francis or moody backing by Kim Deal) and a thoroughly twisted, idiosyncratic sensibility.
For anyone else an EP like this would be the extent of their powers, but for the Pixies this is still a somewhat insecure debut; there're still some relatively normal songs and their sound isn't entirely worked out yet; it doesn't engulf you in another world the way the rest of their material does.
All the same, it's a highly enjoyable EP; every track is strong, and for an EP it's remarkably diverse, alternating between atmospheric sonic explorations, punkish exploits, Mexican inspired interludes, bizarre story telling and straightforward rock. In that regard it truly depicts the band's roots; all these influences would come into play later but less obviously, seamlessly transfigured into the Pixies sound.
Due to its dearth of length and substance I can't in good conscience give it higher than an eight, but it's a truly enjoyable listen, and a must for every Pixies fan. Try to track it down paired with Surfer Rosa for a good value, though that might make for an overwhelming listen.
Surfer Rosa is not an inviting album. While there's always a touch of whimsy suffused with the more unsettling aspects of the Pixies sound, the album may sound dissonant at first before your ears learn to negotiate the schizophrenic sonic onslaught that's assailing them. Their sound is rough and jagged, with a distinctly psychotic flavor. The time of pop embellishments has yet to arrive, and the edges have yet to be smoothed over.
SR does an amazing job of bringing you into another world, and a very dark world at that. But it does turn out to be a world that makes very good sense once you're attuned to it. Hooks abound, and unconventional hooks at that, ones that may escape you for the first few listens.
Diversity is key here. The material segues from apocalyptic rockers to more Mexican send-ups to tenebrous anthems to pop excursions. Kim Deal contributes one number (the somewhat incongruous, but still enjoyable, Gigantic) while Black Francis asserts his customary tyranny over the band's material that would start to cause greater friction down the line. Still, while Gigantic is fun, Kim's major contributions to the album come in the form of her unforgettable backup vocals, that always complement the music perfectly and never get in the way as backup vocals are generally apt to do.
Highlights include the incredible Where Is My Mind? (which contains a great song that many overlook in favor of being enamored by its stellar riff), the insanely catchy and subsequently Bowie covered Cactus, the haunting vocal showcase River Euphrates and the entire four song opening stretch, which have always acted as a kind of macabre suite for me.
This may actually be the ultimate Pixies album as far as distinctiveness is concerned. Their later mutations all retained the Pixies vibe, but they incorporated more conventional influences that somewhat diluted the singularity of their identity. This is indeed an album that no one else could have made, an album at the fringes of sanity and also, perversely, one of the catchiest albums of all time. I can't say that it's their best, but it's a possibility I wouldn't wholly rule out.
Widely considered to be their best album, and not without reason. Somewhat more accessible than the more raw debut with cleaner production that helps emphasize the hooks, Doolittle is a collection of extremely catchy, extremely well crafted and extremely psychotic songs.
While some of the tracks on SR may have seemed to lack polish or development, even the songs that may seem like fragments or throwaways on Doolittle emerge as fully fleshed out songs; There Goes My Gun may seem like a novelty at first, but the infectious refrain is one of the catchiest moments on the album, and perhaps in the entire Pixies catalogue.
Once more diversity is paramount. Debaser, possibly the single greatest Pixies song, starts the album with a jolt, sporting one of the greatest basslines of all time and killer demented vocal hooks. Contrast that with Here Comes Your Man, a track more reminiscent of a stray Nuggets cut than a Pixies song, or Monkey Gone To Heaven, a driving sonic exploration, or La La Love You, an ultra catchy fifties homage likely included to freak out the listener.
This assimilation and mastery of outside styles doesn't diminish the importance of classic Pixies (if there's such a thing for a group as inherently diverse) material, like the power pop of Wave Of Mutilation or the screechathon Tame or the brooding rocker Gouge Away.
But there needn't be a line of demarcation running through the material; the Pixies make every song their own, and invest each with equal personality and care. The expansion of their style can be viewed as either a maturation or a betrayal, but neither seems quite right; it's merely a change, and each change the Pixies have undergone, no matter how improbable, has yielded good results; they have the talent to pull anything off.
Ergo Doolittle is an exceptional album. Is it their best? That's difficult to say. But as a collection of unique, catchy and unorthodox rock songs it's flawless.
The Pixies 'pop' album which, as is inevitable when a complex record is reduced to a one word synopsis, not really a pop album, at least not exclusively. The customary diversity is retained, it merely manifests itself in somewhat glossier, slicker forms, courtesy of new production.
This blatant attempt at commercialism fails to really impact on any of the songs themselves. Is She Weird is indeed weird, with one of the greatest, most psychotic singalong choruses of all time. Rock Music doesn't much seem like either the title or the aforementioned pop debate applies to it, but it does feature some stereotypical laryngitis inducing vocal pyrotechnics from Black Francis.
Velouria is another highlight, power pop with a sci/fi tinge. Kim Deal is used to good effect here, a rarity as Black Francis had already begun his campaign to systematically faze her out of the group. As crucial a part of the sound as she was, however, he absence on the album is rarely noticed, as the strength of Black Francis's songwriting mostly eclipses the lack of backing vocals.
While the pop connotations indeed spread to many of the other tracks, it's hardly a problem for anyone for whom a good pop hook isn't anathema, as the Pixies sound is very compatible with pop, and indeed Black Francis's songwriting had already begun moving in that direction (and would continue to do so in the future). Is it a sellout? It's hard to think of an album with songs like Is She Weird and Rock Music as being a sellout. Still, what's more important is whether the Pixies compromise their sound or vision, which they certainly do not. This is still distinctly a Pixies album, and no amount of glossy production enhancements can change that. If this is a pop album, then it's a pop album like no other, proving that the Pixies can indeed make any style their own.
Yet another drastic paradigm shift. The emphasis here is certainly on rock, albeit with pervasive murky production that drives away many listeners. Once that's overcome, however, one is left with what's ultimately the least Pixies-like Pixies album, and the true bridge into Black Francis's metamorphosis into Frank Black.
Because while the album is certainly offbeat and idiosyncratic, it contains far more conventional rock n' roll than the previous outings did. Not generic mainstream rock n' roll, the kind an armada of faceless musicians and garage rockers churn out daily; no, the kind of off-kilter, charming and unique classic rock that Frank Black & The Catholics specialize in.
The Pixies identity is slowly evaporating. There's no dark mystique shrouding this album as in SR; there's no psychotic role play like in Doolittle; there's no poppy dementia like in Bossanova.
But then again, when a band constantly redefines itself then who's to say what constitutes their sound? There're still too many typical Pixies nuances permeating the album to deny it the Pixies moniker.
And more importantly, it's still good. Very good. No one else makes rock music quite like Black Francis, and now that his estrangement from Kim Deal, who's barely featured on the album, has given him more flexibility, he's finally free to try out an album of straightforward rock n' roll in his own unique style.
Beyond the awesome riffs and vocal hooks, what prevents this album from falling into generecism is the prevailing unique vibe that pervades it, emanating from the bizarre lyrics, the offbeat instrumentals and the signature Black Francis vocal delivery. If this is as normal as the Pixies get then it still isn't that normal. Perhaps it could pass for a Frank Black album, but that isn't really an insult. Some Pixies identity is lost, but at least they chose a direction that still complemented their strengths. As I said, the Pixies could make any genre their own, and they do it with classic rock n' roll as well.
Highlights include the quirky, creative and catchy Alec Eiffel, with its wonderful instrumental sections; the deranged Space (I Believe In), with more psychotic vocal hooks you'd never believe could be so memorable; and Motorway To Roswell, with its procession of fantastic vocal melodies. Every song is great, however, and every song has something unique to offer.
As a swansong it certainly makes sense. Black Francis had found his niche, and with the album nearly devoid of Kim Deal's presence her departure was inevitable. The Pixies vibe had become the Black Francis vibe and, while he had always been the primary songwriter, that certainly hadn't been the case before. While it wasn't a problem here, if they'd merely come out with another album like this it would've shattered the Pixies mythos, as it's fine for a one time experiment but Frank Black & The Catholics (good as they are) never were, nor could have been, the Pixies.
One has to be skeptical when it comes to cynical attempts by a record company to posthumously cash-in on the devotion of a group's loyal cult following, but the execs were right in thinking that there existed an audience so desperate for more Pixies output that they'd purchase anything with unreleased material.
Hence this B side collection. While it's aimed exclusively at hardcore Pixies fans, it's not a very threatening or inaccessible listen. On the contrary, the tracks are uniformly good, if distinctly lesser; there's no case where one would question why a given song was relegated to B side status, even if it makes for a pleasant listen.
River Euphrates, Vamos (live this time), Wave Of Mutilation and Letter To Memphis (in instrumental form) are reprised; they're all inherently good songs, but that doesn't compensate for the fact that these are all inferior versions and thus of no use to anyone save Pixies fanatics who need everything the group ever recorded.
The two Kim Deal solo spots, Into The White and the Neil Young cover I've Been Waiting For You, are both good but sound more like the Breeders than the Pixies, and could have easily fit onto Pod. In that regard they're more essential for Deal fans than Pixies ones, as they don't really add to the group's legacy (though they certainly don't retract).
Velvety (Instrumental Version) is catchy, but works better with lyrics as a Frank Black & The Catholics song, though it may lose some of its weird edge in that incarnation. In Heaven, of Eraserhead fame, is a case where the idea of covering it is cooler than the actual reality of performing the song. This isn't the case with the entertaining Theme From NARC, perhaps the only case of a major rock group covering a videogame theme.
The true originals are entertaining, and while unexceptional they're enough to justify the purchase for any Pixies fan. For a casual fan, however, this is by no means an essential purchase; it was designed to extort money from hardcore fans, and more casual listeners are free from this nefarious conspiracy.