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Pixies – Head Carrier

on September 26, 2016, 12:00am

No reasonable listener expected the Pixies’ reunion album, 2014’s Indie Cindy, to sound like the same band from two decades earlier. Kim Deal had moved on, Black Francis had put out nearly 20 solo records in the interim, and eons in band years had passed. Even if time could be dialed back, why would a group of accomplished musicians pushing 50 want to chase down who they were as twentysomethings? The title track itself was a plea for their new songs to find favor among fans — an indirect admission from the band that they had indeed changed. Unfortunately, the end product proved a painfully forgettable slog, one depicting a band not yet comfortable in their middle-aged skin. As much as we wanted to fall in love again, Cindy registered as a head-scratcher more than a head-turner.

“There’s something humbling and inspiring about mistakes,” Paz Lenchantin, now the band’s full-time bassist, recently told ARTISTdirect. She was speaking in generalities, but it’s difficult not to lump Indie Cindy into that “mistake” category. While the band seemingly shrugged off a wave of both fair criticism and mutilation (gouge away much, Pitchfork?) in their post-release interviews, Head Carrier feels like a recalibration of sorts. There’s still more Cindy than Surfer Rosa here (again, that’s to be expected 20 years on), but it seems like they’re now inching towards being the best version of today’s Pixies rather than a diluted version of yesterday’s — a welcome step.

(Read: The Highs and Lows of Pixies)

In retrospect, Indie Cindy suffered most when the band sounded as if they were attempting to recapture their past — almost like they were trying too hard to be weird or abrasive. When the album settled into more straightforward rock melodies (e.g., “Greens and Blues”, “Another Toe in the Ocean”), it felt far more sincere. Sure, it wasn’t your older brother’s Pixies, but it was a band who sounded confident in who they had grown up to be: mellowed weirdos who knew their way around a melody. Several tracks on Head Carrier further embrace that maturity. From David Lovering’s chiming drums to Joey Santiago’s glowing pre-chorus revving, there’s nothing you or your haberdasher won’t like about “Classic Masher” by the time Francis and Lenchantin blast into the chorus together. Likewise, the band sound at home on the slight but sweet “Might as Well Be Gone” and the more menacing launchpad that is “Tenement Song”, each track organically funneling into a joint chorus that still lingers after the song ends.

Pixies have always been a band built around certain dynamics: soft/loud, acoustic/electric, Spanish/English, and, yes, male/female. Lenchantin restores that touch so desperately missing since Deal’s departure. Throughout Head Carrier, her voice echoes, underpins, haunts, harmonizes, trades lines, and even takes the lead. Her presence fleshes out the songs, adds emotional intensity, and serves as both succor and counterbalance to Francis. Make no mistake, though: Lenchantin acts as far more than a Kim Deal stand-in or imitator. Being asked to enlist full-time is an opportunity that she doesn’t take for granted, and it’s partly why Head Carrier feels so promising. She even composed the music for “All I Think About Now” — a late-album highlight — and asked Francis to write lyrics thanking Deal. The opening guitar and haunting Deal-like atmospherics are reminiscent of “Where Is My Mind?” before the song opens up into the tribute sung by Lenchantin. “I try to think about tomorrow/ But I always think about the past,” she begins, a paralysis that eventually gives way to gratefulness and a more assured path forward by song’s end. It’s this difficult transition from past to present that Head Carrier largely concerns itself with negotiating.

Francis recently told Pitchfork that his primary goal for Head Carrier was “for a listener to be able to remove themselves from the narratives that they might have in their head about the band.” If this record was seven tracks long, I’d say mission accomplished. Those first songs, by and large, are leaner, more confident, and far more memorable than the bulk of Indie Cindy. However, the back third of Head Carrier will send listeners reaching for copies of Doolittle and their familiar narratives. “Bel Esprit” sounds like a poor Pixie’s “Might as Well Be Gone” (yes, repeating ideas from a few tracks prior); the frantic “Um Chagga Lagga” recalls Cindy’s brand of overwrought, manufactured weirdness; “Plaster of Paris” never once justifies its two-minute existence; and the delicate “All the Saints” cuts out just as it threatens to ascend to a truly beautiful conclusion, one of the few times the band’s scalpel fails them on this record. The only way listeners will set aside old narratives is for the band to offer a new one that they can embrace, but here we only have two-thirds of a compelling story, the final act threatening to undo the promising groundwork laid before it.

Pixies continue to find themselves in an odd predicament. They didn’t break up as rock gods. As the  2004 reunion tour documentary loudQuietloud illustrates, they returned to learn, much to their surprise, that they had been deified in absentia. As the band moved on with their lives, thousands of copies of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle sold each and every week for decades, quietly immortalizing the band among both those who had missed them the first time around and a younger generation of listeners. Now that they’re a studio outfit again, the irrational part of us who adore those old records may unfairly place godlike expectations on them. And while Head Carrier may fall far short of lightning bolts raining down from Olympus, there’s enough reason to believe Pixies have a bit of thunder in them yet.

Essential Tracks: “Classic Masher”, “Tenement Song”, and “All I Think About Now”