The last couple of years have taken a peculiar turn for the alt-rock pioneers
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“But everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band,” Brian Eno once said about The Velvet Underground’s meager-selling debut. It might be even more hyperbolic to equate that level of influence to twisted alt rock progenitors the Pixies, but I still can’t help but imagine professed Pixies fan Kurt Cobain listening to “Gigantic” and scribbling notes. “I really remember thinking, ‘That is such a Pixies rip,’” Dave Grohl once confessed about “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. “It was almost thrown away at one point because it just seemed too much like the Pixies.”
The extent of the Pixies’ influence on the ‘90s alternative rock boom can be debated, but practically nobody — critic or fan — questions the band’s body of work. That incomparable late ‘80s/early ‘90s run of Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova, and Trompe Le Monde, a bizarre brew of melody, quiet-loud dynamics, oddball lyrics, and kitchen sink vocal deliveries, still delivers an abrasive euphoria that’s hard to explain and impossible to ignore. It’s that rare discography capable of changing how you hear music. So, really, it wasn’t all that surprising when the original lineup of Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering reformed as a touring group in 2004 and found that legions of fans old and new awaited their return.
The last couple of years have taken a peculiar turn, though. While unabashed reverence for those 20-year-old albums remains intact, it’s become popular to pick on the present-day Pixies, as if the band members weren’t responsible for building that legacy, only tarnishing it. Some perceive touring for nearly a decade on old material a simple cash grab (though, can 10 years still be considered a “grab?”). Others bemoan founding bassist Kim Deal leaving the band last summer and cry foul at replacing her with another Kim (Shattuck) and then finally with Paz Lenchantin in a game of musical female bassists taken directly out of Billy Corgan’s playbook. Most recently, though, the band have endured a fairly uniform online lambasting — with charges of treason, sacrilege, and Pixies-less-ness thrown in — after finally releasing three EPs of new material. Textbook case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Unfortunately, Indie Cindy may make you wish the band had left well enough alone. Dubbed an album (not a compilation), the record merely assembles all the tracks from EP1, EP2, and the just released, but long ago leaked, EP3. If you give a damn about Pixies, you’ve heard all of these songs already, and no fresh album art, re-sequencing, or magic conjured up by the letters ‘L’ and ‘P’ placed next to each other is going to change your opinion on them. Either you’ve already banished these songs from your iPod and memory or, like me, set aside that overshadowing back catalog and tried to appreciate Cindy’s redeeming qualities.
It’s not as though you won’t recognize Francis and Co. here. Trace elements of the Pixies do surface throughout: barked verses and melodic choruses (“Indie Cindy”); a toned-down take on that soft-loud yin and yang (“What Goes Boom”); and occasional slips into Spanish (“Andro Queen”). Sorely missing, though, are the unnerving tension, eccentricities, sense of imminent peril, and trade-off between precision and recklessness present in classic Pixies records. The absence of Kim Deal’s backing vocals (that’s an imposter on “Bagboy”), which could create tension by echoing, countering, or undercutting Francis’s parts, doesn’t help matters, but the problem stems beyond a lineup shuffle. It’s an incredibly tame and polite record, which is hard to accept from Pixies. Indie Cindy feels like paint-by-numbers when we expect Black Francis to hone in upon that imperceptible orange in the ocean or green in the sky.
Consequence of Sound’s own Steven Arroyo offered sound advice when he suggested bypassing the new Pixies cuts that try for gritty and menacing (“Blue Eyed Hexe”, “What Goes Boom”). The band sound far more comfortable and convincing on the album’s lighter fare (“Andro Queen”, “Ring the Bell”). The uncharacteristically straightforward “Greens and Blues” revisits Francis’s obsession with extraterrestrials (“I said I’m human, but you know I lie/ I’m only visiting this shore”) and charms on the back of a simple acoustic strum and Santiago’s sunny day, seaside guitar work. Ironically, it’s through an alien’s eyes that Francis actually seems normal — here, self-doubting and summoning a brave face once realizing a connection he cherishes can’t last (“I’ll leave you alone, fade from your mind/ Slip into the greens and blues”). Likewise, “Indie Cindy”, once you get beyond barked lines like “I’m the burgermeister of purgatory,” hinges on a simple, gentle plea for love and acceptance (“Be in love with me/ I beg for you to carry me”) from either a woman or maybe even listeners.
And it’s in that spirit of understanding and acceptance that Pixies fans might be best served to simply accept that Cindy ain’t Rosa and never could be. Sure, you can wallow in disappointment that this record ranks a distant fifth alongside the band’s classic LPs, but don’t allow yourself in the process to miss out on a handful of worthwhile songs.
Essential Tracks: “Greens and Blues”, “Indie Cindy”
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