Pixies - Doolittle - Review
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critics' view

If you don’t think the Pixie’s Black Francis (later known as Frank Black) had some baggage to deal with his given name may be a bit of a tip off. Born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV implies a bit of a legacy in and of itself, but not only that over the course of Doolittle’s less than 40 minutes and fifteen songs he covers eons of time and a tangled range of topics. Going back to two straight from the Bible tales, if not the beginning of time, Black Francis also covers surrealistic cinema, sex, death, ecology, religion, interracial relationship fantasies, watery graves, shaking one’s booty, and if that’s not enough ground then a song about hobos to boot. That’s not to mention mixed in with that the bookended album tracks that have references to the mutilation or removal of eyeballs, some of which apparently ended up on the cover of their later Trompe le Monde. If you don’t think about it too much, and I’m sure those singing along to “slicing up eyeballs” as if it were an everyday activity really don’t, then the pop/punk dynamics at play here are timeless and well worth a jump into the deep end of the pool.

Bringing on British producer Gil Norton to clean up and power up the band’s sound for their sophomore album, after the prior year's Surfer Rosa, was not without its risks or resulting friction, but it’s that dynamic that ultimately gives the album its undeniable appeal. The tension from straddling pop’s melodies with punk’s energy, Black Francis’ anguished lead vocals with bassist Kim Deal’s harmonies, and Deal’s own juxtaposition of flatly deadpan with perky and sweet make all of these tracks jump. Yet another constant contrast at play is the sequencing of tracks with moments of pop nirvana (‘La La Love You’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’) interspersed between more troubled tracks (‘Tame’, ‘Crackity Jones’, ‘Gouge Away’). Musically things never get too complex with Deal’s rubbery bass leads and guitarist Joey Santiago’s fuzzy, yet clean (there we go again with the oppositions), surf guitar riffs peppered all over the album.

So putting all the dynamics aside, what any great album should ultimately come down to are the songs. The batch on display here are as strong as ‘Gouge Away’’s Samson pre-haircut. Given the brisk pace, with the average track length right at two-and-a-half minutes, there’s not much time to dwell on any one song and to quote American Top Forty the hits just keep coming. There are three stone cold classics that even almost thirty years on most anyone will recognize: ‘Debaser’ concerning itself with turning art on its ear (or in the case of the referenced Buñuel film mutilating its eye), ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ with a story of pollution run amok, and the breezy hobos by the train tracks balladry of ‘Here Comes Your Man’. Nipping on the heels of those are the minor classics of ‘Wave of Mutilation’, that while dealing with suicide by drowning makes me think of driving one’s Buick on the highways of Sponge Bob’s Bikini Bottom, ‘Hey’ with its wiry guitars, angsty lyrics, and Deal’s sweetest sounding vocals, and the moment of respite that is drummer David Lovering’s star turn of ‘La La Love You’. Of the deeper tracks, the biblical horror shows of ‘Gouge Away’ and ‘Dead’ are appropriately stark, while ‘Crackity Jones’ and ‘Tame’ (with vocals going from a Peter Lorre whisper to all out shrieking being anything but) show Black Francis at his most stressed with the latter, for the sake of his vocal cords, hopefully being the last track they recorded. Worth a mention is ‘No 13 Baby’, which has to be the only song on record of a teen boy voyeuristically lusting after his Hispanic neighbor while she prepares a hog roasting pit sans top, which of course reveals the #13 tattoo of the title. If not a true story, it’s made less comfortable by the vividness of the tale.

Mixed in with single entries by the likes of Joy Division, Talking Heads, R.E.M, The Smiths, and Sonic Youth, the Pixies are the only band that has two entries on Pitchfork’s top ten of its best albums of the 80’s list. Doolittle edges out Surfer Rosa on their list and I wouldn’t argue with that. Though given however many albums were released in the 80's we're really splitting hairs here. Song for song, Doolittle is the stronger album, with no real moments of weakness, while Surfer Rosa has fewer tracks and at least two true throwaways. If you want to argue that Surfer Rosa has an edgier sound that’s fine, but Doolittle isn’t exactly the Bangles. In fact, with the passage of time it’s hard to see how Black Francis struggled with Norton’s production (by the way he produced their next three albums, so there must have been some ultimate acceptance there) and the bigger cleaned up sound has aged well. Whereas so many albums of that era sound tinny and dated, Doolittle, by relying on tried and true instrumentation, pop’s structures and melodies with punk’s energy, along with sweet/salty harmonies, remains as fresh sounding today as it was bracingly college rock ready upon its release. For sheer crank up the volume enjoyment, setting aside whatever might be going on lyrically, Doolittle has to be right at the top of the heap of any indie rock collection.

Unfortunately, over the course of an entire album, the band would never reach these recorded heights again. A clear misstep was continuing to subjugate Deal into a lesser role in the band, putting the genie (or Jeannie if you like) back in the bottle. Maybe the initial scuffles between Black Francis and Norton subsided to the point where familiarity set in to the detriment of the output. Whatever the case, and as with so many great albums and bands, the dynamic of an off-kilter environment makes for great art and on Doolittle all the planets were just enough out of alignment to create a perfect moment in recorded musical history.

Mark Moody
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