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Bands are strange, ephemeral things. Logic doesn't apply. What would happen if you threw together the world's greatest singer, its most technically proficient bassist, its most ludicrously gifted guitarist, its most joint-wreckingly dextrous keyboardist, and Christendom's most almighty drummer? Who knows, but I'm betting it'd be catastrophically rubbish. That's not what makes a great band. It's a personal thing, but I think that bands coping with their limitations (or trying to ignore them) is where it's at. Or as someone far better qualified than I once said, "it's the way bands make mistakes together that gives them their appeal. Like The Beatles were trying to be black and Little Richard. The way they failed was genius."
Which is why we have a band whose singer and lead guitarist had never been in bands before, whose bassist was actually a guitarist who'd never played bass before (but thought it would be easier because it had less strings) and a drummer with a Rush fixation who worked at Radio Shack; and that band are usually cited as one of the most influential, if not THE most influential rock bands of the last 25 years. Beyond a desire to be in a band, there was no obvious reason that they should have got together (and maybe that's the reason they fell apart quite so comprehensively), despite the fact that a small ad asking for musicians "into Husker Du and Peter, Paul and Mary; no chops" is almost as perfect a piece of rock mythology as you could wish for.
The Pixies (notice, they're the Pixies, not The Pixies; that's an important distinction. Kinda), singer/rhythm guitarist/main songwriter Charles "Black Francis" Thompson, lead guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist/backing singer/secondary songwriter/"star" (and it's the latter two that probably caused the majority of the friction that made the Pixies burn so briefly) Kim Deal, and drummer/occasional vocalist David Lovering, came together in Boston in 1985. Thompson and Santiago had been suitemates at UMASS (an educational establishment he immortalised on "Trompe Le Monde"), Deal had moved to Boston from Ohio with her husband (hence her adopting the moniker of Mrs John Murphy for the first two Pixies releases, before her divorce), and Lovering had met Deal at her wedding. Attention came relatively easily for the Pixies; by 1987 they had recorded their legendary 17/18 track (there is one track of it that has never been publicly released; a cover of Christian rocker Larry Norman's "Watch What You're Doing") demo tape "The Purple Tape", which had been passed onto tragically hip English indie label 4AD by Throwing Muses (and soon to be Pixies) manager Ken "Anything" Goes. 4AD cherry-picked it down to the 8 track mini-LP "Come On Pilgrim". The astonishing sound this mis-matched foursome made was streamlined still further by producer Steve Albini on their debut full-length, "Surfer Rosa", and by the time the Gil Norton helmed "Doolittle" came out in 1989 the Pixies were the coolest band in the world, at least as far as the English music press were concerned; a substantial audience in England agreed with them, and "Doolittle" made number 8 in the main album charts, almost unheard of for an indie LP in the late 80s.
These first three releases pretty much told the listener everything he needed to know about the Pixies sound; indeed, almost twenty years on, "Surfer Rosa" and "Doolittle" are still considered to be absolute landmarks in alternative rock. The basic elements had been introduced; the Black Francis Scream (which is a great excuse to look up the word "horripilate" if you don't know it; that's what The Scream makes you do), Santiago's almost child-like surfy guitar lines and fondness for bending one note into another, Deal's budda-budda basslines and ludicrous helium-fuelled cheerleader voice, and Lovering daring to be "merely" a good rock drummer (after the Pixies split, he became a professional magician just to show that he'd been quietly bonkers while the others were being overtly bonkers).... then there were the songs, which were classics of tension/release dynamics, supremely catchy (for want of a better word) while often being quite magnificently abrasive.
So, if these two albums are the landmarks, if they tell you everything you need to know about the Pixies, how come I'm reviewing one of the other two? The Pixies' last album, one of the less-regarded releases, dating from a time when intra-band communications were practically zero?
Well, part of it is to investigate what a band does when its initial creative rush runs out; when the "automatic" songwriting (as Thompson put it) stops paying off quite so extensively. Can a band that's not really functioning as a band any more turn out something worthwhile? But mostly, I think I'm trying to redress a balance, because, contrary cuss that I am, this is my favourite Pixies album.
Pixies did two albums after "Doolittle"; "Bossanova" (which ramped up the surf aspect of the Pixies' sound) and "Trompe Le Monde". Relations within the band (especially between Thompson and Deal, with the former allegedly growing tired of the amount of fanlove being bestowed on Deal when he felt he was the one doing the vast majority of the work) were already frosty and continued downwards, and Thompson took more and more control of the band in the studio. Deal was almost fired before "Bossanova", and by the time of the Pixies' final tour, the pair of them were no longer speaking; her presence on Pixies records had gradually dwindled too, her previously-prominent vocals were now used, if at all, for the odd harmony, and she certainly didn't get to write any songs. And the albums were largely being written in the studio rather than being demoed, and as the Pixies' own road manager put it, "once you're writing the songs in the studio, it's over."
Thompson felt he'd more or less exhausted the "subject matter" he'd used on the first Pixies albums (he always claimed to be a surrealist, and earlier Pixies songs tend to be far more focussed on that sort of imagery than with more mundane concerns such as girls, love etc; he dealt in sex, death, religion and mutilation, and he made it fun. Honestly), so "Trompe Le Monde" covers all kinds of arcane matter. But to a lot of people, this is the Pixies' sci-fi record. Thompson claims to have been exposed to a UFO as a baby, and the subject has always fascinated him. He now used that fascination and married it to discourses on architecture, dinosaurs, university, shrimps, indie clubs and Indians. Oh, and a love song, just to show he could actually do that too.
Anyway, to try to justify my five stars, to get across the eclecticism on display, I will look at the record track by track. Bear with me...
1) "Trompe Le Monde" - For a man who wrote "Tame", "Gouge Away", "Bone Machine" and "Something Against You" to open an album with the lines: -
"Why do cupids and angels
Continually haunt her dreams
Like memories of another life"
....is a bit of a surprise.
As a song, it's characterised by a few changes of tempo, some lovely Santiago guitar runs and sweet high singing from Thompson. And the words? Well, as Charles Thompson is a man who loves word games, fans have spent 16 years trying to work out if one is being played here. Or maybe it's just a "here's the album guys, enjoy!" sort of thing. To quoth:
"Go, little record, go
It is named by
Some guy named Joe
And the words
Are the letters of the words
For outer space and those of they who paid
This song is twice occurred
And now it's time to go
Away on holiday"
2) "Planet of Sound" - A magnificently wilful choice for a single. A little drum roll and guitar squall gives way to a classic Kim Deal bassline. A very very Pixies song; the spoken verse drops out to a staggering rock chorus, with one of the few cameo appearances of "The Scream" on this album. Lyrically, the Planet of Sound is Earth, and the song is from the point of view of aliens looking for it.
3) "Alec Eiffel" - "I thought it was important to speak about Gustave Alexandre Eiffel, as he is considered as the pioneer of aerodynamics. Fascinating subject"
A deeply addictive number, and telling of the band dynamics of the time. The song spends just over a minute on a call-and-response vocal which in days of yore would have been Thompson-to-Deal-and-Back. Here it's Thompson to Thompson. But no matter; just when you think what a nice little rock ditty it is, it goes somewhere else entirely. The last minute and a half is amazing; a Santiago guitar motif that seems to be in a totally different time signature to the rest of the band, and a repeated refrain (either double-tracked Thompson or Thompson/Deal; either way, it's gorgeous) of "Alexander, I see you beneath the archway of aerodynamics" which is underpinned by the first appearance of Captain Beefheart's keyboard whizz, Eric Drew Feldman. It's not abrasive at all, but it is wonderful.
4) "The Sad Punk" - Another song whose start and finish are on totally different plains. A minute of full-on rock guitar and full-on Black Francis shrieks ("I smell smoke and it comes from a gun named EXTINCTION!!!") gives way to a much slower, more thoughtful vibe and a long fade-out. This one's about a kid walking along the road and thinking of the dinosaurs beneath his feet.... according to its author.
5) "Head On" - An absolutely piledriving cover of a Jesus And Mary Chain song. Apparently the Reid Brothers fully approved.
6) "U-MASS" - Quite possibly the dumbest riff in the history of rock music drives this ode to Thompson and Santiago's alma mater. The bass goes wonderfully rubbery around 1:02 and the chorus is a triumphant scream of "It's educational!". Nuff said, really.
7) "Palace Of The Brine" - Pixies producer Gil Norton always used to say that Thompson tended to write ditties, short sharp songs with no fat on them. This is one of them; a tribute to the Brine Shrimp that lives in the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The first really obvious appearance of a Kim Deal backing vocal, and after only 1:34 it segues beautifully into.....
8) "Letter To Memphis" - Nothing to do with Elvis (the Memphis in question is actually in Egypt), this is, shock horror, a love song about Thompson's then girlfriend, later wife, eventually ex-wife, Jean. A great rock song with a great tune and cracking Santiago guitar flourishes.
9) "Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons" - A Ronseal Quick Drying Woodstain sort of song, in that the title tells you exactly what it's about; a little bird that falls asleep and dreams it goes to Mars. The second song with a conspicuous Eric Drew Feldman keyboard part, it's a classic example of a song building to its climax, and gorgeously so. Interestingly, this was originally to be sung by Deal, but Thompson nixed the idea.
10) "Space (I Believe In)" - A song that screams "written in the studio", but one that strives to make a virtue of it. On an album with a few space-themed songs, this isn't about that sort of space; in fact, the lyrics deal with the space within a song, and how one should seek to fill it (or not). So, bizarrely, we have a song which deals with the bloke who's playing tablas on it (Jefrey Drew Feldman, Eric's brother). Maybe this is Thompson's way of mocking his own inability to write about an external subject; it's very entertaining regardless.
"We needed something to move and fill up the space
We needed something this always is just the case
Jefrey with one f Jefrey took up his place
Sat on a carpet and with tablas in hand took up the chase"
Musically, this is song showcasing Santiago's guitar, which squalls and spirals in all manner of directions. And then Thompson sings the Perry Mason theme.....
11) "Subbacultcha" - Each Pixies album had a song resurrected from the Purple Tape tracks that didn't end up on "Come On Pilgrim"' technically, this record has two, as "Distance Equals Rate Times Time" was originally "Subbacultcha"'s middle eight. Anyway, this is the only Thompson/Deal shared lead vocal, and is a low, rumbling, choppy tribute to indie clubs.
12) "Distance Equals Rate Times Time" - And now follow the two inessential songs! One of Thompson's more throwaway ditties, this time dealing with the omnipresence of television. This was 1991; the poor sod didn't know how much worse television was going to get.
13) "Lovely Day" - Actually, that's unkind to "Lovely Day", which has some lovely, very Santiago-esque guitar play, and a sweet lyric that might be about falling in love with a Martian girl. Can't be sure. But it does rather pale next to the epic.....
14) "Motorway To Roswell" - A tribute to the Roswell alien. Don't you dare laugh; this is my absolute favourite Pixies song. Another track that builds quite superbly, on a bed of some great Santiago guitar flourishes and motifs, gradually kicking in with a Feldman keyboard part, and a lovely, appropriately alienated lyric. But the best is yet to come; having spent two minutes circling around the lyric "he started heading for the motorway, and he came right down", still managing to build, suddenly the rhythm guitar, bass and drums all drop out, and you are left with a staggering ethereal keyboard line and a guitar beaming in a shaft of feedback from somewhere out there in space. Sorry to go all Lester Bangs on you, but there's about 50 seconds of it, and it's one of the finest things I've ever heard on a record.
15) "The Navajo Know" - Now, if the Pixies weren't the Pixies, they'd have ended their final album with something so utterly apocalyptic and vast as "Motorway to Roswell". But they are, so there's a little ditty about the Mohawk Indians who built the skyscrapers in early 20th Century America (Thompson used the Navajo in the lyric because he loved the internal rhyme). A lovely chuggy number, with a gorgeously simple (i.e. I can almost play it) underpinning guitar line.
So, this album isn't groundbreaking; indeed, it could be argued it's absolutely all over the place. And it's no introduction to the band in question, that's for sure (although Santiago's guitar playing is great throughout). But it's a deeply loveable introduction to the unique talent of Charles "Black Francis / Frank Black" Thompson, and while even he acknowledges he was a bit of a tyrant at the time (and legend has it, he broke the band up by fax), at least he had the benevolence not to end up with a useless record at the end of it.
Well worth rediscovering.
(Previously on Ciao)
And so it came to this.....after the early promise of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, followed by the disappointing Bossanova, what came next sounds like a band hitting their stride rather than a band falling apart.
Trompe Le Monde, to these ears at least, is their rock album. The quirkiness of their earlier songs (a trait much missed from Bossanova) is back, but this time they've chucked a distortion pedal into the equation. This is my favourite Pixies album.
Where Bossanova dragged, Trompe Le Monde soars. The opening eight song barrage is a real assault to the senses. Classic singles (Planet of Sound, Alec Eiffel) nestle alongside noisy anthems & cover versions (U-Mass, Letter to Memphis, a sensational take on the Jesus and Mary Chain's Head On), and in The Sad Punk a real schizophrenic song, probably their most aggressive yet. Each song seeps into the next before you've caught your breath.
The centrepiece of the album is Bird Dream of The Olympus Mons. Reigning in the testosterone displayed previously it's musically reflective and just plain dreamy. The only criticism being that it was apparently written for Kim Deal to sing, but Black Francis sang it out of spite, not wanting her vocals on this album. Its perfect for her voice and one can only hope that a Deal version exists in some vault somewhere.
The album carries on with a swagger, old song Subbacultcha given a shiny new metal coat, whilst hooks a plenty are spat out of Space (I believe In), and Motorway to Roswell. Final track The Navajo Know is a curve ball, sounding like an experimental Specials number. In a good way.
Overall the feeling of brevity in this album is in direct contrast with its predecessor, and if the internal chemistry was wearing off by this point then we should be grateful that the anger fuelled the songs. This will always be the album I'll point people towards more so than their early releases because I think once you've fallen for this then the back catalogue will follow easily.
This IS the planet of sound.
Final album from the band, released in 1991 'Trope Le Monde' is virtually a Frank Black solo album in all but name. Often overlooked or said to be weaker than earlier albums, this is actually suprisingly good material from the band if your willing to give it a chance.
The album is definately a grower, with songs like 'Bird Dreams of Olympus Mons' slowly becoming one of my favourite songs over a number of years seemingly without me realising it! The album is quite a different beast to the earlier albums, with more emphasis on Frank Black to the point where Kim Deals vocals are hardly there at all. This I feel is probably the albums biggest failing as I have often thought that what made the Pixies work so well was the seemingly clashing vocals when put together would simply make the music 'work'. This was of apparently down to a breakdown in relations within the band and Kim Deal was according to some sources meant to have a vocal lead on the album.
1. Trompe le Monde
A energetic opener, quite reminicent of the previous album 'Bossa Nova' in feel. An upbeat yet fairly standard Pixies song.
2. Planet of Sound
A heavier track, similar in feel to songs on the 'Doolittle' album. The album sports the standard non-sensical sci-fi lyrics from Frank Black. This is probably one of the most well known songs on the album and has a great manic ending.
The second more well known song on the album, this is again a heavier track written for the university where the band first met and started playing.
8. Letter to Memphis
Up until this point probably the most straight forward song Frank Black ever wrote. A great uplifting intro morphs with a great riff that drives the song, this is classic Pixies but for some reason never seemed to get played live during the recent reunion.
9. Bird Dream of the Olympus Mons
Again, Frank Blacks lyrical obsessions mean that the song is almost incomprehesible to anyone other than himself. Despite that the song conjures great sci-fi imagery with great vocals from Mr Shouty. One of my favourite Pixies tracks.
14. Motorway to Roswell
Another slow number, this chilled out accoustic led number again has a sci-fi theme. The lyrics seem to be concerned with a man accidentally travelling to Roswell. Still the song has a great hook and shouldve closed the album in my opinion.
Overall the album is a solid, under apprieciated effort that points the way for Frank Blacks early solo career. There are to be honest a few filler tracks and the cover of The Jesus & Mary Chains head on as good as it is would be more suitable to a b-side as it doesnt really add much to the song.
I still dont understand why there is so my derision for this album, personally I think its a much stronger album than 'Bossa Nova'
Trompe le Monde opens with the record’s title track, a short song which demonstrates some of Joey Santiago’s most impressive guitar tricks. The Pixies once said that this album, which was to be their last studio album, was going to be, “a full-on rock record”. The opener sets the vibe for the rest of the album, with the band’s punkish, at times tragic, and less frequently tuneful songs, only three of which last for more than three minutes. Look out for “Motorway to Roswell”, “Subbacultcha”, “Letter to Memphis” – possibly one of the greatest songs of all time – and “U-Mass”, which is supposedly the “inspiration” for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Sprirt” – make your own mind up. This album could easily be widely accepted as a classic if it were given more exposure, as with the rest of their material.
A welcome return to form for the Pixies -- one of the most influential yet least recognised bands of the 80s/90s -- it might have seemed on its release that Trompe Le Monde marked a reversal of the decline hinted at by its lacklustre predecessor, Bossanova. Sadly it was more like a swansong, being the last album they recorded as a band. Luckily for us fans, it's actually pretty good. There are a few tracks that could almost be polished-up out-takes from the band's earlier sessions -- 'Subbacultcha' and 'Planet of Sound' stand out. The rest of the album is recognisably strange and twisted and although it rarely hits the heights that once seemed to be so effortless, it also rarely drags. In fact if anything it's sheer energy that elevates this album beyond the actual quality of the songwriting. In some ways it can be seen as a staging-post for leading man Frank Black (as he was soon to become) before moving on to his solo career. The rest of the band's involvemnt, it seems, was minimal and they rarely if ever played together during recording. The final split came not long after. Far more satisfying than Bossanova, if somewhat less so than the really early material, Trompe Le Monde is certainly worth exploring, if you've already tried and enjoyed Surfer Rosa and Doolittle.
You've got to be able to handle weirdness with this one. Musically and lyrically it is very strange, at times, but "Trompe le Monde" is ultimately extremely beautiful, in my opinion. Like the earlier Bossanova, there's a science fiction theme - with maybe more emphasis on the 'science' this time around. The title song is an excellent introduction - cascading guitars, and eloquent solos, a great melody, a bit of screaming from Black Francis, frequent changes in tempo - you know you're in Pixieland. I absolutely love "Head on", a cover of the Jesus and Mary Chain song - it's an intense, desperate, drug song, which builds and builds, comes to a perfect ending - too soon, though. Another favourite is "Motorway to Roswell" (at times I think it's my favourite Pixies song), which has a wonderful haunting tune, reminding me of Sparks or the Beach Boys - it's the song I always end up humming after the album's finished. "Space (I believe in)" is weird - elements of grunge, surf music, David Bowie ("Ashes to Ashes"), and lyrics like "d = r x t"? (which is actually a precursor to a later track on the album "Distance equals rate times time"? what more can I say? You better get out your physics books. "Lovely day" moves along nicely, with a U2 quality about it, and Kim Deal's vocals are great, too (it's a shame she's not to the fore more often on the album). "Bird dream of the Olympus mons" does have a dreamlike quality, with the almost hymnal organ and harmonising in the background - this song starts in an ordinary kind of way, in a similar vein to "Every Breath you take", but soon it becomes extra special, in a way that Pixies songs often do. Sometimes (e.g. "Alec Eiffel", and "The sad Punk") they sound as though they are going to be terrible, just an onslaught of noise - but
halfway through they turn into something completely different - a melodic surprise, but more than that - a revelation.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Trompe Le Monde
2 Planet Of Sound
3 Alec Eiffel
4 Sad Punk
5 Head On
6 U Mass
7 Palace Of The Brine
8 Letter To Memphis
9 Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons
10 Space (I Believe In)
12 Distance Equals Rate Times Time
13 Lovely Day
14 Motorway To Roswell
15 Navajo Know