The Mainstream: The Pixies Heavy Head Carrier
The Pixies Heavy Head Carrier
Much ado was just made across DIY media (i.e. social media) and mainstream music media celebrating the 25th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. It would do well to remember that there would have been no Nirvana without The Pixies (and to an equal extent, The Melvins). The controlled quirkiness of their odd time signatures, hard and heavy guitar sound that vacillated between loud and soft, and affinity for equally controlled yet quirky lyrics made The Pixies of the late 80s as eclectic as R.E.M. of the early 80s, and as equally responsible as R.E.M. for paving many an imitated musical road. Nirvana, as great as their music was, was really just the music of The Pixies and The Melvins made mass marketable. Sadly, we will never know how far Nirvana would have progressed past their The Pixies meets grunge sound, but we do know what The Pixies would sound like almost 30 years later. While I’m glad that Black Francis and the band (including ex-bassist Kim Deal) have lived a long and happy life, and remained physically and mentally healthy (and musically productive), maybe The Pixies, as a band, should have left their legend intact, and let their music rest in glory, and in peace.
Indie Cindy (2014), The Pixies comeback album, was pretty widely met with lukewarm reviews, even though it had some really great songs on it that recaptured the original appeal of the band before they began to go stale on their post-Doolittle (1989) albums. Yeah, some of the lyrics on Indie Cindy (including those to the title track itself) were a little silly, and slightly bordered on pretentiousness, but when did Black Francis’ lyrics not come across as slightly silly and a little pretentious? Indie Cindy sounds like an amalgamation of Doolittle and Surfer Rosa with a few duds not even worthy of Bossanova (1990) or Trompe le Monde (1991) mixed in. Head Carrier (2016), the band’s first full album with new journeywoman bassist Paz Lenchantin, doesn’t rise to the quirk level of Indie Cindy’s best classic Pixies’ moments, but also fails to rise to not only Indie Cindy’s best rock moments, but also those of Doolittle as well.
None of those failures to rise to the occasion are the fault of Lenchantin though. She actually is a saving grace on the album. The Pixies of old always thrived off the male/female dichotomy that Francis and Deal brought to the band’s music, and with the addition of Lenchantin, that dynamic is not only back, but it also feels natural. Sadly, the quality of the songs don’t take as solid advantage of this rejuvenated male/female vibe as the songs did in the indie glory days of the band.
One listen to the album’s first track (and title track) “Head Carrier” and it’s obvious that The Pixies, to the album’s benefit, are going heavy. Producer Tom Dalgety (Killing Joke), who also produced Ghost’s recent release Popestar, amps up the deep sound of the drums, bass, as well as the lower end guitar notes. There’s little distortion in the sound though. This adds a sense of weight and hard rock, almost grungy, heaviness to the songs that The Pixies really only flirted with on Indie Cindy. The fat-bottomed sound, like Lenchantin’s presence, helps to rescue the vast majority of the songs on Head Carrier from mediocrity, making even the slower and simpler songs like “Oona” listenable. On songs like “Talent,” one of the few times The Pixies get a little quirky, Dalgety’s production and Lenchantin’s voice come together to give Black Francis the tools needed to recapture some of that old Pixies magic while making it sound more heavy and rocking than it ever did. “Talent” is one of the few songs where Francis and the band really sound like they’ve got their pistons beautifully out of sync while heroically motoring ahead anyway. “Um Chagga Lagga” is another example where all the stars aline and The Pixies deliver, but the self-referential rip off of “Where Is My Mind?” titled “All I Think About Now” nearly unravels the entire album. Yes, it’s a heartfelt homage to the missing Kim Deal lyrically, but you’d think The Pixies as a band could come up with something better, and more original, to serenade Deal with.
Even though there are some good moments here, even if there are less of them than there were on Indie Cindy, Head Carrier really won’t do much to add to the legend that is The Pixies. Sometimes it’s better to burn out than fade away, but overall there’s enough here worthy of listening to that I can’t help but hope that on the next Pixies album, the band will put together Indie Cindy’s quirk, Head Carrier’s hard sound, and Doolittle’s melody and give us that great album that the band is capable of delivering in their current incarnation.