Pixies’ ‘Head Carrier’ can’t carry the band's legacy
There’s a moment during every concert when you become a pleasantly swaying body. The lights are low; your eyes have adjusted to the fluttering environment; and the sweaty bodies (you’re sweaty, too) somehow feel like family now. The band is in between bangers, buffering their mega-hits with two to three-minute ditties, maybe from that one album you pretended to like, but didn’t really. But still, you sway your body to the song, pleasantly. Because you’re at the concert — it’s been years — and it’s that band.
That’s what listening to Head Carrier feels like.
The Pixies only left us for 11 years, in the grand scheme of things. Hell’s favorite quartet formed back in ’86, with original members Black Francis, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering. While they lasted, these Bostonians released some of the best albums the last 50 or so years have seen: 1987’s freaky prototype Come On Pilgrim, 1988’s harsh and nuanced Surfer Rosa, 1989’s classic Doolittle, the extraterrestrial Bossanova and the steady Trompe La Monde. By the time 1993 rolled around, though, tensions between Francis and Deal came to a head, and the group (one of Kurt Cobain’s favorites) disbanded.
But now the Pixies are back, and they have been since 2004, technically. Francis and Deal still aren’t on oh-my-God-let’s-grab-coffee terms, though, and the band has been burning through replacement female bass players somewhat desperately.
2014’s embarrassing comeback EP Indie Cindy featured Kim Shattuck, who marred its glossy songs with razory vocals. However, Head Carrier’s Paz Lenchantin seems like she’s here to stay: the Argentinian rocker does a satisfactory job on the album, filling the Pixies’ feminine aorta with much needed, fresh-flowing blood. And yet, still, she’s lacking. There’s no Deal-ian bite.
Head Carrier plays out the same way — good, but not great. Upbeat, but not biting or gripping in a lasting way. The title track tricks the listener into being hopeful. As Francis sings “I’m going down the drain again,” Santiago’s guitar bends in that sad, albeit gorgeous, fashion, and these words seem (at first) a kitschy harbinger for a return to form.
“Classic Masher” is saccharine excellence — Francis and Lenchantin’s harmonies are sunny and effortless, and the song’s lyrics nestle into a familiar territory of wittiness, bilinguality and obscure references. Only Francis could have a “tête-a-tête with his haberdasher,” whatever that means. “Baal’s Back” continues strongly, with screams galore a la Doolittle’s “Tame.” It resurrects that nails-against-the-chalkboard charm, if only for a few minutes.
These two songs, along with the pounding, gritty “Oona,” mark most of the album’s highpoints. There are a few B-level goodies: “Might As Well Be Gone” ’s chorus has the kind of resolve and the kind of downward melodic inflection that feels like an OK day’s indifferent midnight. “Tenement Song” is also fair — the “Hey man!” ’s sound very “Suffragette City,” and the guitars are revved up.
Then, there are the oddballs. “Um Chagga Lagga” is pseudo-edge at its worst. Permeating this mess is, alas, desperation; the song is a Hail Mary to any kind of progress and coherence Head Carrier had built up until this point. What is “um chagga lagga on the side of the road”? Is it a metaphor for sex, or did Black Francis’s car just run out of gas? There will never be an answer.
“Talent” is equally as embarrassing. It’s a nod to the Pixies’ surf-rock influences, to be sure, but too much of a nod — more like a failed head butt. Francis and Lenchantin enunciate “talent” in the chorus like a first grade teacher would, carefully tapping each T. 1989 Black Francis wouldn’t have cared. He would’ve hollered it without the T’s. (A fun game: take a shot every time you hear the word “talent” in the song. You’ll be dead. And they’ll play “Talent” at your funeral, unfortunately.)
Then, the mush. “Bel Esprit” is “Plaster of Paris” is “All The Saints” — everything begins to sound the same stale brand of ordinary. Not horrible, but ordinary. And banality is so against the foundational fiber of this band. Pixies are rooted in quirk, in the unexpected, the bizarre and the off-putting. Head Carrier tries and tries to gnaw its way back to this twisted, golden goo of yesteryear, but it just can’t break the plaster of convention.
“All I Think About Now” rings toward the end of the EP. “The Apology Song” to Deal — undoubtedly the 21st-century Pixies’ missing link, missing everything — this track could’ve easily finished off the album. The listener jumps: the opening guitars sound almost identical to those of “Where Is My Mind?”, the band’s most well-known single.
And so now you’re just waiting for Deal. You’ve spent the whole concert, the whole album, pleasantly swaying your body but not rocking it. Where is she? Where are those “oooh, oooh”s? Black Francis telling her to “stop?” Where is one of the best rock songs of all time? The best bands of all time?
None of it comes. “All I Think About” begins: “I try to think about tomorrow, but I always think about the past.”
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