Sometimes reviewing an album can be difficult owing to the knowledge that one might have about the artist’s personal situation.
Obviously you do your best not to judge anything except the audio itself, but very occasionally the context in which the music is released is just too much to ignore. Take the recent Nick Cave record Skeleton Tree. Whilst it might be a brilliant album, it’s very clearly the work of a man that has recently suffered an unimaginable loss and as such any attempts to review or even frame the songs presented come across as pointless, trite even, when it’s a work so clearly born out of a still open wound. The Pixies’ second album since their comeback, Head Carrier, presents the listener with a similar problem, in the sense that for all intents and purposes it has literally no reason to exist.
Being one of the single greatest bands ever to emerge from America meant that when the Pixies reunited in 2004, 12 years after calling it a day, it was difficult to fault them for doing the festival circuit. Sorely under-appreciated in their heyday, the opportunity to finally soak up some of the goodwill (and indeed, dollars) was one that they always deserved. Reviews from the comeback trail proved to be excellent, but then the band just sort of…hung around?
They continued to play the festival circuit every summer and the reviews very gradually started to get worse. I saw them open for Arcade Fire two years back, at which point bassist Kim Deal had jumped ship and a so so record, Indie Cindy, had been released. All I can remember about them from that gig is that it seemed as though Black Francis and Co. really didn’t want to be there, and with Head Carrier they’ve finally caught that sound on record.
Head Carrier brings to mind this year’s Blink-182 album, in the sense that that record reminded one of The Pixies. California had all the classic tropes that’d be found on Surfer Rosa, Trompe Le Monde and Bossanova, but in a far tamer manner. Sure, ‘Classic Masher’, ‘Tenement Song’ and Head Carrier‘s title track feel like they should be fun Pixies thrashers, but instead come across as totally stale. The quiet/loud dynamic feels impossibly formulaic, the guitars are too reverbed and too controlled. Worst of all, Black Francis sounds bored. Indeed, he proves to be one of the major disappointments here.
It’s hard to believe that the man mumbling and sighing his way through most of these songs is the same person who manically screamed on ‘Something Against You’ and ‘Debaser’, especially when he makes pale imitations of those yelps on both ‘Baal’s Back’ and ‘Tenement Song’. Even when Head Carrier gets good on its final three tracks, it still just feels Pixies-lite. ‘Um Chagga Lagga’, in particular, feels like something that should be played over the opening credits of a cartoon, and not in a fun way like ‘Tony’s Theme’ from the band’s debut record, but more of a sad, second rate way.
Kim Deal, whose compositions and singing always acted as a nice counterpoint to Francis, is sorely missed. ‘Might As Well Be Gone’, which finds Francis and new bassist Paz Lenchantin harmonising on the lyric “You’re only a ghost” at best feels like a cruel insult to Deal and at worst sounds like the band is tarnishing their own legacy.
It’s half tempting to sum up this album by saying that it sounds like a castrated version of the Pixies, but that almost sounds like it could be vaguely interesting. There is of course an argument that the Pixies aren’t the bratty upstarts of yesteryear and thus they shouldn’t be judged on the terms laid down by their earlier records. Fair enough, but when they so nakedly aim to imitate those albums it’s hard to think otherwise. Avoid.