In this, the age of the cash cow reunion tour, a frustratingly small amount of the returning old guard is prepared to stretch to new material, most preferring to sit back on the hits of yesteryear than haul the band back to the studio. Further still, a number of those that do record anything new are inclined to revisit old aesthetics; the Stone Roses’ new material, for example, is virtually indistinguishable in tone from their output first time round.
In which lies perhaps the most striking thing about ‘Head Carrier’ - Pixies’ first album proper since their 2004 return, following 2014’s compilation of post-comeback EPs ‘Indie Cindy’. This is not, as it could so easily be, an ill-fated attempt to recapture the magnificence of the group’s original run, rather a highly produced, slick turn from their old lop-sided brilliance to a more straightforward strike of melodic, bracing rock.
And there’s plenty to enjoy about ‘Head Carrier’, which starts strong with a title track resplendent in guitars that glisten then lurch, before launching through the slick ‘Classic Masher’, which boasts a bold, polished pop chorus. Elsewhere ‘Talent’ sparkles with a rush of pace while ‘All The Saints’ rounds off the record with a tender lilt.
Paz Lenchanin, the band’s latest bassist and backing vocalist, does well in the unenviable task of replacing the formidable Kim Deal, who took her leave of the band in 2013. Her replacement takes commanding lead vocals on the record’s finest track ‘All I Think About Now’, trades lines with Black on the sweeping ‘Bel Esprit’ and frantic ‘Um Chagga Lagga’ and lends sturdy bass throughout. Though it’s a shame not to hear Deal’s nonchalant foil to Black’s yelping charisma, Lenchanin is more than a mere tribute act.
It’s a decent, perfectly listenable rock album. The problem is there’s not much to the record beyond that, and The Pixies were always a group that was so much more than decent. In a certain respect it’s admirable that the group are showing a clear desire to move on from the ‘80s and ‘90s, but in doing so they’ve lost much of what made them so special to begin with. Frank Black and co. have always been at their best when off kilter - on the breathless moments of unhinged mania in ‘Surfer Rosa’ and when lost in the dizzy weirdness of ‘There Goes My Gun’ and ‘Mr Grieves’ – but on ‘Head Carrier’ they’re playing it safe; though still capable of crafting a solid rock record, there’s no hiding the fact they’ve lost that edge of insanity.
It feels unfair, if unavoidable, to say, but Pixies’ new material is a far cry from their back catalogue. ‘Head Carrier’ feels polished to the extent of slight facelessness, scrappy guitars sanded down and autotune evident, and often it’s only Black’s unmistakable yowling vocal that sets it apart at all. Often tracks feature a hint of brilliance before sliding into mediocrity, like the heady squeal that opens ‘Tenement Song’ before stumbling through a pedestrian verse-chorus-verse. Lyrically, too, a strength often overlooked in the band, there’s a sense they’re phoning it in this time around with plenty of rambling repetition.
Yet how many records could ever hold a candle to ‘Doolitle’ anyway? Where so many of their reformed contemporaries re-hash and revive Pixies deserve credit for producing a bona fide continuation to their career, and though ‘Head Carrier’ is far from triumphant, it’s by no means a failure.
Words: Patrick Clarke
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