Album Review: Pixies' 2016 "Head Carrier"
A pillar and long-standing influence of the alternative rock scene, the Pixies, are back in the saddle with their late summer 2016 release of Head Carrier, and it’s not winning many fans over with its rather pedestrian and unsalted tone. It’s been 25 years since their last studio album unless you count the triple EP release of Indie Cindy in 2014 –some of which was barely recognizable as Pixies material. Relax diehards; I said some.
Head Carrier brings a new permanent addition to the band’s bass guitar position, Paz Lenchantin. Paz came into the fold after the recording of Indie Cindy, although she does appear on the deluxe edition tracks of the 2014 release. Before joining the Pixies, Lenchantin worked with several noteworthy bands. Her résumé includes full-time bass and vocals for A Perfect Circle and Zwan. She’s also contributed to albums for bands like Queens of the Stone Age, Brightblack Morning Light, Silver Jews, and Trust Company among others.
The rest of the lineup are original members Frank Black (a.k.a. Black Francis) on vocals and rhythm guitar, David Lovering on drums and percussion, and Joey Santiago on lead guitar and keyboards.
Of course, the obvious missing bandmate is former bassist Kim Deal (also of The Breeders), who left the Pixies in 2013 after several reunions. But if you’re reading a Pixies album review, chances are you already know who’s who.
The newest album isn’t the raw mix of surf punk/start-stop/quiet-loud –you know, the good shit that put the Pixies on the map in the 80’s and 90’s. However, at least half of the songs on the album are worth a second and third listen.
The new offering opens with title song "Head Carrier", featuring a milder, smoother version of the muddy guitar work we’re used to from the band, plus a little shoegaze reminiscent of 90’s alternative. "Classic Masher" has a poppy feel and brighter tone with Paz’s vocals in the background. The third track, "Baal’s Back", features Black Francis’ primal scream we fell in love with on Doolittle and Trompe le Monde –think Debaser and The Sad Punk, respectively.
As you progress into the middle tracks of the disc, "Might as Well Be Gone", is where I want to get off the bus. It’s too sweet and innocent for anything under the umbrella of the Pixies. The tempo of the record picks up again on the fifth and sixth tracks with "Oona" and "Talent", with a surf-rock sound and more interesting lead-ins. Tracks seven, eight, and nine "Tenement Song", "Bel Esprit", and "All I Think About Now": rather forgettable.
Track ten, "Um Chagga Lagga", provides a much-needed pick-me-up, which might explain its position as the first single released from the album. This up-tempo track swoops in with a hint of west coast punk styled guitar licks and a dash of B-52’s nostalgia. The album rounds out with mild and melodic "Plaster of Paris" and "All the Saints", which may loosely fit into the mix of the 1990 LP Bossonova.
The biggest disappointment of the album is, oddly enough, also the biggest hope: Paz Lenchantin. Her backing vocals sound are the perfect accent and substitute, filling the enormous shoes of predecessor Kim Deal. Her bass playing doesn’t do the Pixies sound justice, and that’s no slight on Paz –maybe this isn’t enough of a challenge for her. It pains me to say that because Paz is an amazingly diverse and talented musician who’s proven she’s worth her salt in everything else she’s touched. But that does not a Pixie make. Just no.
Having said all of that, Head Carrier deserves some praise for a band that just came from a 20+ year hiatus. Lest we never forget, this is the band that heavily influenced our beloved Nirvana. Perhaps they’re evolving and shouldn’t be expected to sound the same for 30 years. Maybe we Gen-X’ers should roll with the changes.