by Jack Pickles
‘Head Carrier’ is the latest release from the massively influential Boston alt-rock band Pixies, and their first proper album since 1991’s ‘Trompe Le Monde’ (2014’s ‘Indie Cindy’ was a compilation of three EP’s rather than a fully-fledged LP).
Given that this is their first proper album in 25 years, the expectations riding on it (at least for me) are tremendous. This is of course the band that acts such as Nirvana, Radiohead, and David Bowie have cited as a major influence, and the sound they crafted back in the 80s has had a near incalculable effect on the indie rock scene. Trying to review ‘Head Carrier’ poses major problems as it’s really impossible to do so without acknowledging the context of the band as a whole.
Now before I go any further, I’m going to skip to the final line and say that I do recommend this album. It’s a decent effort with some flashes of brilliance, but it’s far from excellent, and doesn’t really do anything to cement the Pixies as the aged kings of indie. In short, it’s a great record, but not a great Pixies record.
And that is the issue. What would a great Pixies record sound like nowadays? The majority of the band’s existence has been spent in creative hiatus. The original members are now all in their fifties, and it shows, particularly with frontman and lyricist ‘Black Francis’ (Frank Black) whose vocal dexterity has greatly reduced in the period between the band’s reincarnation.
This to be expected: bands get older and they tend to mellow out when that happens. If you take an early Red Hot Chili Peppers record and put it side by side with their latest release they wouldn’t even sound like they came from the same band, but with them we have had the privilege of hearing them age through more frequent releases. During their original run, the Pixies were hollering about UFOs, biblical violence and incest (the band has three songs dedicated to the latter subject, which must be some sort of record outside extreme metal). Take all that away and what is left?
And it’s not like a late career comeback is a guaranteed disaster. Dinosaur Jr took theirs as a chance to cut loose and are now writing some of the best music of their career. The Pixies should have done the same with ‘Head Carrier’ but unfortunately haven’t, choosing to play it fairly safe.
The good news is that it does sound like a Pixies record, unlike ‘Indie Cindy’ which sounded more like the Pixies doing a bad impression of themselves. Frank Black’s storytelling song writing style is the strongest it’s been in recent years; Joey Santiago’s guitar riffs remain as idiosyncratic as they’ve always been; newcomer Paz Lechantin does an admirable job of filling Kim Deal’s space vocally, her harmonies preserving that wonderful vocal dynamic that made the band so interesting.
However, a lot of these lyrics sound twee and uninspired, the riffs don’t pop, sounding chunky and lethargic, Frank Black’s vocal abilities have been reduced to this listless, spoken-sung delivery, and as admirable a job as Paz does replacing Kim Deal on the vocal front, after multiple listens I still can’t recall a single bassline she lays down. Kim Deal was far from technically gifted, but she knew her limitations, played within them and laid down some of the all-time most recognisable indie rock basslines, like ‘Gigantic’ and ‘Hey’.
This of course brings us to the elephant in the room – Kim’s departure. This has been a serious point of contention for hardcore fans, and not without good reason. It’s becoming increasingly clear that she was the creative ballast for Frank Black, and without her, he has begun to indulge in a sappier, nonsensical side of song writing.
To their credit, the Pixies are no longer ignoring this elephant, with multiple tracks alluding to her departure, none more blatantly than album highlight ‘All I Think About Now’, a heartfelt apology from Frank Black, sung entirely by Paz with sonic throwbacks to ‘Where is my Mind’, including a similar lead guitar riff and nostalgic oohs.
Paz deserves huge credit for her vocal performances actually. Whether intentional or not, she sounds distressingly similar to Kim, even down to the snarky vocal affectations, and it just so happens that the best tracks from this album are those that her vocals are most prominent on. ‘Oona’ sounds like a deep cut from the Bossanova days, with its sinister lyrics and foreboding chorus. ‘Classic Masher’ is a cathartic track with a simple premise – your ex’s new man is better than you and you know it – with one of the album’s catchiest choruses and a sound very reminiscent of the Pixies early college rock contemporaries.
‘Bel Esperit’ is the closest the album gets to capturing that early Pixies magic, with its story of a hopeless romantic beautifully realised through Frank and Paz’s vocal call and response. Frank’s writing shines on these tracks. One of the things that made him such a compelling frontman was – despite even in his physical prime looking like a substitute teacher – the way he sung so boldly about sexual perversion. It makes sense in his later years that he can tackle straight up romance as deftly.
The quality of these songs only serves to make the album more disjointed however. The three singles released in the run up to the album are easily the weakest songs on it. ‘Tenement Song’ ends up being a fairly pointless, meandering story of a down and out finding purpose through a set of drumsticks, a promising premise that lacks the conviction necessary to pull it off. ‘Um Chagga Lagga’ has all the worst features of ‘Indie Cindy’, sounding like a desperate attempt to recapture past glory (specifically ‘Vamos’). ‘Talent’ is a track that could have worked well on an earlier record but requires a certain ferocity to make it work.
‘Baal’s Back’ – which is by no means a bad song – makes it clear that this ferocity is now gone. Frank’s once inimitable howl, akin only to the cries of a dying animal, is now sounding very radio rock, and more laboured than ever before. It’s still an exciting track, with a sense of urgency and a kinetic, power chord guitar riff, but it also excuses the total lack of screaming on the rest of the LP.
So to come back to where I started, ‘Head Carrier’ is a mixed album, but ultimately worth a listen – not the kind of thing you’d resent buying on vinyl. I feel like ardent Pixies fans will probably be disappointed with this record, God knows I hated it the first time I listened to it. But over the course of many more, I’ve come to terms with the new Pixies. They were never going to sound like they once did, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’ll always have those early records anyway. This album definitely has the groundwork upon which the band can build a more illustrious second coming, and if they follow the direction denoted by songs such as ‘Classic Masher’ and ‘Bel Espirit’, then perhaps the new, tamer Pixies can work their way into the same cherished spot in our hearts.