(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

History Lesson - Pixies, Doolittle (1989)

The unbearable blightness of dreaming: rage, noise, and surrealism

The Pixies sucked in the sounds of punk and post punk and transformed them into a new language of visceral frustration informed by the curse of self-awareness. Thus the distorted thrash of Hüsker Dü, the angular tonality of Television, and the demented experimentalism of Pere Ube coalesced into a  noisy melange that would later influence bands from Nirvana to the White Stripes.

Surfer Rosa was a strong offering as the band's first full length album, with a brutally primitive clarity, but Doolittle showcases a more fully developed sound. Punk energy and a willful embrace of surrealism made Doolittle a more ambitious project. A lot of bands aim to be shocking and only manage an affected strangeness. But I remember hearing Debaser for the first time and concluding that Black Francis was truly messed up.

Like Johnny Rotton on Anarchy in the U.K., Francis' voice on Debaser is gleeful as he riffs on the imagery from Luis Buñuel's surrealistic film Une Chien Andalou: "Slicin' up eyeballs, I want you to know." The music starts out with Kim Deal's note perfect bassline and a clean post punk feel that quickly picks up a thick layers of guitar. The raw drive of the song supports the increasingly manic vocals. Francis has talked about surrealism as an artificial, escapist form, but Debaser and other parts of Doolittle test that boundary. Like a self-cutter trying to feel via pain, Francis seems to be trying find morality and truth through transgression.

If Debaser makes me think Francis was out there, his howl on Tame seals the deal. The track's dynamic contrast is powerful. His intermittent explosions of rage are a kick to the teeth, but the softer syncopation between Francis' and Deal's vocalized breathing near the end of the track is more torturous as it builds a nervous anticipation. It's clear that they're catching their breath before the final confrontation.

If Doolittle only offered aggression, it would wear thin quickly. Instead, the album branches out with a dreamy version of surrealism (Wave of Mutilation), a sweet yin-yang mix of Deal and Francis vocals (I Bleed), and a surprisingly bouncy pop (Here Comes Your Man). This last track sounds like a rougher version of the Pretenders' earlier work, trading Chrissie Hind's brash tone for Francis' cryptic openness.

The magic, though, comes with Monkey Gone to Heaven. The social commentary and environmental message are only slightly oblique and there are a couple of lyrical gems there. But the arrangement is what makes it so special. The Pixies sacrifice none of their edge, but the soft-loud shifts are more controlled and the subtle strings add a rich depth. The staccato bassline holds the pace in check, imbuing Francis' raw build to "Then God is Seven!" with greater weight.

The second half of Doolittle is a bit of a roller coaster ride -- the campy fun of Mr. Grieve, the hyper thrash of Crackity Jones, La La Love You's upbeat Cure feel, and the funky groove of Hey -- the mix of sounds and styles throw some curves, but the Pixies' je ne sais quoi remains clear. Even if most of the second half doesn't quite deliver the power of Debaser or Monkey Gone to Heaven, it's easy to imagine Jack White wearing out his copy of the album, soaking it in.

Doolittle closes with another strong track, Gouge Away. The steady bass and calm vocal detachment of:
Gouge away
You can gouge away
Stay all day
If you want to
sets up the loud response, whose rhythm guitar part sounds like it's been passed hand to hand from sometime far back in Keith Richard's history. The surf tone guitar lead adds a psychedelic touch. The pauses and variable strings of notes are like cigarette smoke drifting across the room. Gouge Away serves as a fitting complement to the album's start. Worn down, Francis now sounds like the old hand who could probably offer some advice to the brash young man on Debaser.

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