Wednesday, July 24, 2013
There was a time when the Boston group the Pixies was the last word in rock-and-roll bacchanalia. The group's singer and songwriter, Black Francis, had been inspired by Iggy Pop of the Stooges and by David Lynch movies like "Eraserhead" and "Blue Velvet." From Iggy Pop, he derived a "primal scream" vocal style, while Mr. Lynch's macabre surrealism influenced Black Francis's id-infested writing.
The Pixies' lyrics seethed with febrile imagery of sleazy sex, base biological processes and mutilated bodies. Black Francis's singing often bordered on speaking-in-tongues delirium. The impression was of a driven, repressed individual venting his inner turmoil in what he has called a "scream of consciousness."
The Pixies broke with their rabid norm with last year's "Bossanova." With its intricate harmonies and twangy surf guitar, the album's patron saint seemed to be Brian Wilson. Like Mr. Lynch's "Wild at Heart," "Bossanova" was picaresque but ultimately cute and inconsequential.
Perhaps because of the mixed reactions to "Bossanova," the group's fifth album, "Trompe le Monde" (Elektra 61118; CD and cassette), was hyped as a return to the good old noisy Pixies that everybody loved. There were even rumors of a heavy-metal slant. And indeed, there has been a perceptible shift back to the raucousness of 1988's "Surfer Rosa." On songs like "Alec Eiffel" and "Distance Equals Rate Times Time," the Pixies are once again smothering their gorgeous harmonies and melodies under a barrage of grunge.
For those who would dismiss Pixies as mere New Wave-college radio lightweights, "Trompe le Monde" provides plenty of ammunition: self-consciously quirky song structures, whimsical lyrics and abrupt tempo changes and mood shifts. Black Francis has developed the penchant for the kitschy sci-fi scenarios first explored on "Bossanova" in songs like "Velouria," a love ode to an extraterrestrial femme fatale.
"Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons" is about watching the sun rise over a mountain range on Mars. "Lovely Day" continues the Martian theme with what appears to be the lovelorn blues of a migrant worker on the red planet. "Motorway to Roswell" is about an American town where an alien craft is alleged to have crash-landed in 1947.
Time and/or space travel also recurs on the song "Planet of Sound." With Black Francis's distorted voice, Kim Deal's grinding boogie bass riff and Joey Santiago's squealing, backfiring guitar, the group sounds more demented than it has in years. Yet there's something curiously detached and studied about "Planet of Sound." Like a lot of the Pixies' work since their semi-glossy 1989 album, "Doolittle," it feels like an immaculately wrought but dispassionate simulation of rock mania. A kind of blank irony, reminiscent of Pop Art sensibility, holds the music back from true wildness.
The new album also features a remake of "Head On" by the Jesus and Mary Chain, another group that has an almost scholarly appreciation of the underground rock canon.
"Subbaculcha," the best song on "Trompe le Monde," sounds like the Jesus and Mary Chain's "My Little Underground." Lyrics like "I was all dressed in black/ She was all dressed in black/ I was wearing eye liner/ She was wearing eye liner" simultaneously mock and glorify the outsider pose, while the music throbs with the brooding, malignant pulse of the Pixies at their untamed best. The problem is not that the Pixies have run out of things to say (content was never their forte anyway), but that they're running out of new ways to reiterate that nothing-to-say. "Trompe le Monde" doesn't have enough new twists and turns to provoke anything but the inconclusive verdict: another pretty good Pixies record.