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The Boston Phoenix Motherlode Manna

The Pixies live on in "Death"

By Ted Drozdowski

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  The double bill looked great on paper: the Pixies and Throwing Muses at Avalon. Actually the Lansdowne Street club was called Metro then, back in '88 or '89. And the Pixies had released their Surfer Rosa album a few months before. Produced by ace noisemaker Steve Albini (who's since worked with Nirvana and PJ Harvey), Surfer Rosa was a jolt even by post-punk standards. Singer Black Francis came off as a knotty little spuzzball of rage and tiger wisdom on tunes like "Where Is My Mind"; the music fused a love of classic pop with a wall-of-dirt guitar sound that connected the dots from Sonic Youth to John Cage to the Ventures. It was cool shit.

In fact, the new double-disc Death to the Pixies (4AD/Elektra) still packs jolts: ghostly backing vocals, sounds that rip through the mix like passing ambulance sirens, and black-lunged screams that overpower the microphones into rumbles of submissive distortion. The Pixies' music remains a perfect soundtrack for a turbulent world in which those coming of age have fewer opportunities than their parents did. And this collection of 17 of the Pixies' best studio tracks and a 1990 concert recorded, aptly enough, in the Netherlands (though "nether regions" is more descriptive of the Pixies turf) is still cool shit.

But that Metro show -- which should have been a jubilant homecoming for both Boston bands -- was a nightmare. The muses weren't with the Muses, who put on a lackluster performance for the 50 or so people that came out. And with so few bodies in the hall, the Pixies' set was an indistinguishable blood clot of sound. The too-loud guitars and drums and Black Francis's howls bounced around the empty room like exploding pinballs. It didn't help that neither band had really yet learned to control their instruments.

A few years later, the Pixies were on stage and in control at a sold-out Boston Garden, playing for at least 14,000 more people than had been at the Metro. Sure, they were opening for U2. But they were playing songs that were psychic hits, if not exactly the fodder of Top 40. By then "Gigantic," "Debaser," "Here Comes Your Man," "Dig for Fire," and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" had become part of the gray matter of indie-label-rock culture. Those tunes had gotten airplay in Boston, on college radio, and at the handful of modern-rock stations that were scattered across the country like a few desert watering holes.

That was enough. Enough to spark the breeding of hundreds of smart little twisted bands across the world, including an outfit from Washington named Nirvana. Kurt Cobain's trio embraced the same soft-verse/loud-chorus dynamics, skewed personal viewpoint, and sonic dirt that Black Francis, bassist Kim Deal, lead guitarist Joey Santiago, and drummer David Lovering wallowed in. But Nirvana tempered the formula with more accessible vocals and a cannier way with hooks. Nirvana claimed the world the Pixies created in the same way the Pixies made Sonic Youth's big bang go pop. And for rock, things haven't been the same since. When you hear Bush, Catherine Wheel, or any number of sleek-and-noisy modern bands, you're hearing the Pixies' gleeful debris.

If you missed the motherlode, or if you simply miss it, plug into Death to the Pixies. On the studio disc, you'll hear how the scrubby young visionaries wove their nightmares into anguished howls like "Tame" and applied their strychnine wit to the college culture satire "U-Mass." On the live disc too you'll hear the echoes of their fate, when Kim Deal steps to the microphone to sing "Gigantic," the song she wrote with Black Francis. Her melodic instincts part the sea of sound better than Francis's passionate yelps, foreshadowing how much farther than the Pixies her pop sensibilities would carry her next band, the Breeders.

Indie bible thumpers may insist it's sacrilege to say that the Pixies, who dumped fresh fuel on the bonfire that punk started, embraced the classic-pop past as strongly as they bum-rushed the future. But consider: is Black Francis's gentle croon through the verses of "Waves of Mutilation" so far from Johnny Ray? Why didn't the band reject hooks or pound them into a mechanical, redundant pastiche like Prodigy? (Who aren't half as smart and won't prove anywhere near as influential.) And why the hell is Joey Santiago copping the guitar melody from "Purple Haze" as Kim Deal sings the live "Into the White," or picking "Pipeline" in the jam-out on "Vamos"?

The reason is that the Pixies knew a good thing when they heard it. As did Nirvana. What made both bands great is that they knew how to improve upon what they heard by recasting it in a way that made sense for themselves and for their time. And, for that matter, still does today.

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