"the collective sales potential of a Sleeper outtakes box-set"

Written by David Thorpe on Thu, 12 Feb 1998 18:53:27 +0000.

The following article was published in the NME. Quite a few 4AD CD's have been "re-released" this week here at 10 quid. And if you buy two of them, you get a free copy of Anakin too.

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OBVIOUS BUT NECESSARY statement: advertising, sales and marketing people are the enemies of art. Were Rembrandt around in 1998, he would have been asked to make The Nightwatch smaller so it could easily be accommodated on to T-shirts, while you can just hear the man at Scraatchi & Bottlebanque complaining that The Mona Lisa's an OK painting but it needs more titty action. The late Bill Hicks advised members of this noble profession to shoot themselves - presumably to save the rest of us the trouble.

Rock'n'roll, of course, is not art - not even, these days, if released by arch aesthetes 4AD. Proof thereof arrives with the label's decision to reissue the entire album output of seminal surf-punk surrealists the Pixies. Yes, momentous stuff, especially when one considers that the Pixies' albums have been unavailable for all of three months. Indeed, stocks began to dry up only following the release of last October's 'Death To The Pixies' compilation. Hmmm...

One trusts you're getting the idea. Label releases a posthumous 'best of', of which the only possible criticism is its teasing brevity. Label then makes the band's exalted back catalogue, from which 'best of' is entirely compiled, artificially difficult to obtain. And now, label makes back catalogue available once more, and at mid-price to boot. Such selflessness, such esprit du coeur. The fact that 4AD's current roster has the collective sales potential of a Sleeper outtakes box-set obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with any of this.

Such grubby demographic pitch-shifting should not detract from the beauty of this source material, however. Had the Pixies emerged during the post-'Nevermind' alternarock era they helped usher forth, rather than splitting up as it began, they would no dou bt have sold a great deal more records than they did. But would heightened commercial imperatives have nurtured the astounding creative impetus that produced five albums in as many years? Unlikely. At the risk of stating the obvious, none of these albums are any less than great, while two - 'Surfer Rosa' (1988) and 'Doolittle' (1989) - helped define that which became the heartland rock noise of the '90s.

Both were preceded by 'Come On Pilgrim' 8/10, a mini-album, in effect a demo for 'Surfer Rosa' in as much as it contained all the elements that Steve Albini would amplify into glorious oblivion for the band's full-length debut. What we appear to have is a heavy metal version of the Violent Femmes. Songs are either about sex ('I've Been Tired'), death ('Ed Is Dead') or, more usually, a combination of the two ('The Holiday Song', 'Vamos'), plus a smidgen of Old Testament namechecking. Issued here - as on th e original CD issue, naturally - as a misleading coda to 'Surfer Rosa', '...Pilgrim' heralds a band crawling from the womb fully-formed, DNA structure shared evenly between Heaven and Hades.

Ten years after its release, 'Surfer Rosa' 10/10 still sounds terrifying. Albini patented his production hallmarks on this record: the kick-drum feels as if it's about to obliterate the listener's cochlea, guitars and bass are cranked up to compensate an d Black Francis serrates his vocal chords just for fun. For light relief there's 'Gigantic' - significantly an isolated star vehicle for Kim 'Mrs John Murphy' Deal - while the new version of 'Vamos' is almost comical in its satanic- Hispanic crossover. It would take Albini and rock another five years to emulate its ghastly visceral thrill - except 'In Utero' didn't have so many funny bits.

The shinily produced 'Doolittle' 9/10 actually saw Black Francis refining his songwriting techniques to new levels of brutality. What Albini might have made of 'Debaser', 'Tame', 'I Bleed', 'Dead', 'Gouge Away' or 'Wave Of Mutilation' hardly bears thinkin g about. 'Debaser' perfectly epitomises the Pixies' blend of calculation and intuition. While ruminating on its wry cinematic imagery, you may wish to consider that the line "I am un chien! Andalusia!" was originally (allegedly) scripted as "I want you to shed! Apollonia!". However much Black Francis enjoyed the idea of one of Prince's backing singers stripping, not even he could be so flippant as to employ it as the basis of a song.

'Bossanova' 9/10 represented a band surfing a plateau, but what a marvellous plateau it was. Songs about sex and death gradually diminish in deference to songs about anthropology and the cosmos, while 'Velouria' and 'Is She Weird' reintroduce the Theremi n to pop's lexicon. The shock of the new is gone, replaced by almost endlessly satisfying consistency. Here, to quote the band's original unamended name, was Pixies In Panoply.

'Trompe Le Monde' 7/10 makes for a frustrating valediction. Stunning individual moments ('Planet Of Sound', 'Space (I Believe In)', 'Alec Eiffel') suggest a return to the riotous physicality of old, but as many as four superfluous tracks represents unpre cedented Pixie profligacy. Still audacious, still loquacious, the Pixies simply seemed to be tiring of each other and a sound which now evidently constrained them as much as it once felt liberating.

Like all the truly great bands, the individuals concerned subsequently failed to sustain their initial reservoir of inspiration through respective future projects - though The Breeders and Frank Black have both had their moments. These so-called reissues need not concern first generation fans: there are no extra tracks, no new packaging, no surprises, other than these songs' still-robust demeanour. Neophytes, however, can wallow in a delirious wave of Pixillation. They have nothing to lose but their minds.

Keith Cameron
(c) Copyright NME / IPC Magzines

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