Pixies - EP-2
Posted on Monday, 6 January 2014 | No Comments
Think you had some ups and downs in 2013? Try talking to Frank Black. As the year started, the Pixies reunion had seemingly run out of steam, the relentless on-off touring for a decade of an essentially static setlist seeing the audience's euphoria slide into cynicism. Having previously suggested new material to his bandmates to little success (the rowdy, strong 2007 solo album Bluefinger having been frequently read as a dumping ground for unused ideas earmarked for the Pixies), the complete exhaustion of their play-the-hits/play Doolittle formula might have helped him force his bandmates hand as they finally took to Gil Norton's Monmouth studio to record Pixies LP5. Great start, huh?
Except: except two days into sessions, your totemic bass player who wrote one of your biggest songs, found success with her own band outside the Pixies and perhaps the most beloved member of the band suddenly bails out. Except: you're now down to a trio, using one-time member of The Fall and respected indie rock sessionist Simon 'Ding' Archer to get the low end down (presumably because after a tour of duty with Mark E. Smith, even stepping into Kim Deal's shoes is no biggie), hoping to rescue something from your costly financial outlay. Except: you've now got a whole bunch of new songs, but no bassist and no idea how to get them out and whether people will accept new Pixies material this late in the game. Except: you've now got to see this thing through.
The hushed nature of the sessions meant that when Bagboy landed on 1st July - just after the announcement of Kim Deal's departure - it genuinely took people by surprise. Here, at last, was the proper big new Pixies single, long after most had given up hope of it ever happening. But what the hell was with the synth bass and electronic drums? Is it too different, too similar? And what on earth is with that Kim Deal backing vocal if she's not in the band? (Answer: one Jeremy Dubs, with even Frank himself noting the uncanny likeness). Even though it turned out to be an actually rather great comeback track, the questions it left unanswered overshadowed its actual quality.
Hot on its heels came new touring, a new Kim on bass and then EP-1, four more tracks from the Monmouth sessions that met what, if we're being kind, could be called a 'mixed' reception from most listeners and outright derision from Pitchfork. While there's certainly more going on than detractors would suggest, it still seemed an oddly timid and conservative offering, especially after opening their latest comeback with a track as strong and confident as Bagboy. Throw into the mix rumours of the new material going down to near-silence at some live shows and the mysterious exit of Kim II - didn't Wilde have something to say about that? - and you've got a year of great promise ending in confusion in the land of the Pixies.
Be glad then that with EP-2, the remaining Pixies trio are starting 2014 with the best foot forward. Although some of the flaws of EP-1 remain - primarily an over-compressed, over-clean production job that smothers rather than flatters the superb playing of Black, Joey Santiago and David Lovering - this latest four-track offering makes a far more convincing case for the Pixies as a creative force in the twenty-first century, and also sheds more light on their decision to skip the standard album campaign. Where EP-1 lead off with the slow, plodding Andro Queen, EP-2 rushes in with the AC/DC-ish rocker Blue Eyed Hexe, eager to make up for lost time. What could have been an unattractive look on the band (as this Jools Holland performance made clear) turns out just fine though: on the studio recording, Santiago finds ways to subvert and mess around with the stomping main riff, while Lovering proves that adage about there never being too much cowbell just fine. And Mr. Black? He's screaming up a storm with a manic tale of Northern witchcraft. In three minutes, doughy dad-rock gets twisted inside out and sent off to the planet Pixies to make work as Subbacultcha's deranged, drooling gothic cousin. Or, more simply: thank Christ, they sound like the Pixies on the one.
Even better is the astral balladry of Magdalena. This time leaning more on the Bossanova side of the band, it makes the most of the hardened crunch of the modern Pixies to provide some ballast to Black's oddball love story, with a brief but beautiful vocal part on the chorus and some great textural playing from Santiago making for a track that sounds totally in cue with the Pixies of old but subtly moves into fresh waters also. Greens & Blues, on the other hand, was expressly written as Black's attempt to come up with "another song that would – musically, emotionally and psychologically – sit in the same place that Gigantic has sat [in the live set.]" Now, trying to actually make a Gigantic II (a song which, as Deal's signature Pixies effort, seems uniquely unlikely to be appearing in the setlist any time soon) would be a fool's errand, and wisely Greens & Blues is a simpler, more plaintive slap of anthemic rock that comes across as a more energised take on his work with The Catholics than anything else. Those hoping for a full-on Black screamfest will doubtlessly tear their hair out, but then there was always more to the Pixies than that, and even if it's not a song that's going to topple Gigantic off the top of the list of fan favourites, it's plenty successful in its aim to be a bright, melodic curtain closer for their summer festival dates.
Rounding things out nicely is Snakes. Let down by some slight lyrics, musically it's still a nice, suspenseful track propelled by another great performance from Santiago (whose jamming with Black provided the impetus for the track), and again reconnects with the spiky oddness of early Pixies in a satisfying and unforced way. Of EP-2's achievements, it's that which stands out the most: on these four tracks, the Pixies identity is asserted far more forcefully than on EP-1, and also given slight tweaks that move the band forward. They still need to lay off the over-production - just imagine how good Snakes would be if it wasn't clipping all over the sodding place - but EP-2 also suggests that their decision to drip-feed the new material rather than releasing it as one block might be vindicated. In giving people time to get their head around the idea of new Pixies material and to slowly absorb it as it comes, they've given the songs a far better chance of having sufficient time and space to connect with fans and get a fair assessment. It's still inexplicable that this sprightly and hugely enjoyable collection was released after the leaden EP-1, but still, here we are. The three Pixies left still have something to offer, and if they can keep the quality as high as on this release, even Pitchfork might find themselves eating their words.