POP MUSIC REVIEW : The Pixies: Who Needs Charisma?
Black Francis, meet Marshall McLuhan.
Francis, leader of the rock band the Pixies, has claimed in interviews that many of his lyrics have no literal meaning, and that his band’s medium--aggressive, jagged “alternative” rock--is his message.
Sunday at the Hollywood Palladium he put his money where his words aren’t and let the music speak for itself: Three of the first five songs the Pixies played were surfing-on-Mars instrumentals, and one of the others had only six words in it.
It would have been amusingly gutsy if the group had carried on like that throughout the show. But then it was probably amusing enough to Francis to have the young, packed-in crowd responding so physically and passionately to a band that displays virtually no stage charisma (you could hardly even see the musicians through the stage fog for the first part of the concert) and to lyrics that are generally stream-of-consciousness non sequiturs (which the fans nonetheless often chanted along with the singer).
“Trompe le Monde,” indeed. The title of the Pixies’ latest album means “trick the world,” and that phrase sums up how the group seems to feel about being darlings of the college/alternative rock world for the last several years. A neat trompe indeed, and one justified by this tricky show.
Lack of charisma aside, the Pixies--anchored by David Lovering’s hard-driving drumming and Kim Deal’s booming bass, and marked by Joey Santiago’s distorted guitar crunches--have become a terrific live band, almost able to match the sonic rewards of their albums. Occasional extra texture was added Sunday by keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, borrowed from opening act (and spiritual/musical forbear) Pere Ubu.
Maybe Black Francis is too clever for his own good. But in the end it doesn’t really matter whether his abstract thought fragments and interjected yelps and howls are shards of a broken mirror left from a fight with internal demons, or merely things he thinks sound good.
What counts is that the combinations of music and words and yelps strike nerves. And, in truth, there’s more to many Pixies songs than that. Songs from the new album explore dreams of flying and other escapes--a welcome alternative to the standard rock themes of day-to-day street grit.
And, in this show, two older songs loomed large as elegant contemplations of the modern condition: “Wave of Mutilation,” a distillation of “to be or not to be” existentialism, and “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” a meditation on humankind’s inevitably tragic follies.
Is that really less “real” than what we ask from Guns N’ Roses or Nirvana?