Beneath the Eyrie
Oh, the Pixies. You know all about them, the most celebrated underground band of the late 80s and early 90s. Influencers of everything that came after them, both good and bad. Everyone was into them, they now say. Of course, that last bit is bullshit, if everyone was into them in their first run, they’d be gazillionaires, instead of members of a cult band. They broke up in great acrimony in 1993, frontman Black Francis faxing (remember that) his bandmates to say he was done. Real classy. Their legend grew. And grew. And grew. And then they reformed in 2004 and began touring, all the original members: Black Francis on vocals and guitars; Kim Deal on bass and vocals; Joey Santiago on guitars; David Lovering on drums and vocals. I saw that tour, at the CEPSUM Arena of the Université de Montréal. It was glorious. Francis and Deal looked like they actually liked each other (this was the major faultline in the band). And then, after doing this for a decade or so, playing the occasional new song, including even releasing the Kim Deal-written and sung ‘Bam Thwok’ in 2004. It didn’t really sound like the Pixies, to be honest, other than Santiago’s searing guitars. It was more a Breeders song. And then Deal was gone.
The Francis/Deal faultline divides Pixies fans to this day. Me, I’ve just never bought into the Cult of Kim Deal, as much as I love the Breeders. She did not make the Pixies, she wasn’t the main songwriter, she wasn’t the main singer, that was Black Francis. She was part of the band, as were Santiago and Lovering, all of whom were essential components of the band (as evidenced by Francis’ mediocre solo output as Frank Black, the songs were capital, the music was missing something). And then, Deal split before Pixies put out their first post-reunion album, 2014’s uneven Indie Cindy. That was followed by the equally uneven Head Carrier in 2016.
I am not of the opinion that Pixies’ post-reunion output sullies their legacy. I think people who make such claims are those who simply refuse to allow the band to age. Francis, Santiago, and Lovering are all in their mid-50s, and Paz Lenchantain, who is Deal’s replacement, is in her mid-40s. Black Francis’ songs and lyrics back in the day were full of creepy characters, space invaders, strange women on beaches, and so on. There was a simmering sexual energy. Hard to do that when you’re over 50. For me, Indie Cindy and Head Carrier both have great moments, most notably the track ‘Bag Boy’, which could’ve easily slipped onto any of their classic albums. And this traditional narrative also overlooks the fact that the final album of the initial run, 1993’s Trompe le Monde marked a sudden break from the traditional sound of Pixies, as Black Francis’ song writing changed, became more charged, more straight-forward, and more straight-ahead guitar-oriented.
And so here we are in 2019, thirty-plus years since Pixies came into being in Amherst, MA, where Francis and Santiago went to the University of Massachusetts. And Beneath the Eyrie drops onto us. Is this a complete return to form, that mythical form of the late 80s and early 90s? No, it’s not. Those days are gone. Get the fuck over it.
Pixes in 2019 are a different breed. Black Francis still writes a mean song, and here Lenchantain joins him in co-writing three tracks, ‘On Graveyard Hill,’ ‘Long Rider,’ and ‘Los Surfers Muertos.’ Her ‘just-happy-to-be-here’ aura that existed on the last two albums seems to have worn off, she’s a full-on Pixie now.
Beneath the Eyrie kicks off with the chugging drums of ‘In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain,’ which is, well, a pretty classic Pixies song. It wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Bossanova from 1991. Along with the stuttering, chugging drums, Santiago’s guitar wails and soars over the track, drawing on his unique style, which at some point was based on surf guitars. The vocals see Black Francis snear and sing, augmented by Lenchantain. To be honest, in a lot of cases, she sounds like Deal on vocals, at least how Deal delivered her Pixies vocals. So far, so good.
The album was recorded in a creepy old church, and this feeling infuses the album in places, most notably on ‘On Graveyard Hill,’ about a witch named Donna, as Francis preens, sings, and snears over a driving rhythm and the duelling guitars of he and Santiago. This is a killer track.
Francis has taken more to story-telling in middle age, and ‘Catfish Kate,’ like ‘On Graveyard Hill’, reflects. He takes the role of Black Jack Hooligan, ‘who came all the way from Aberdeen/to live among the Go-betweens’ and he tells us the story of Catfish Kate ‘from the time she was just Kate.’ ‘Catfish Kate’ is also a classic Pixies track, it would be impossible for Santiago to play guitar and not have it sound like Pixies.
But here’s the rub, whilst every single track here, including the maudlin and mostly acoustic ‘Ready for Love,’ about Francis’ recent divorce, sounds classically Pixies, there is a difference from the classic Pixies. Francis has developed an ear for melody in a way he didn’t back in the day, his choruses are bigger and bolder, and the music never really quite hits those wonderful quiet-LOUD-quiet days of yore.
So fucking what? It’s not 1989 anymore. Get over it. Other highlights of Beneath the Eyrie include ‘Long Rider,’ ‘St. Nazaire’ and ‘Bird of Prey.’ ‘St. Nazaire’ even has Francis scream over a vicious musical track, and whereas his 1980s scream was higher pitched and could send chills down your spine, now, it’s a deep-throated growl.