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The Boston Phoenix Art Attack

The Pixies live on live At the BBC

By Jon Garelick

JULY 20, 1998:  The Pixies and their "new" At the BBC (Elektra) come from an actual time (1988-'91) and place (John Peel's studio) but feel more mythical than real. In that far-off land, not so long ago, there was art. Remember art? That's when there wasn't any punk, or techno, or jazz, or movie junkets, or cross-promotions, or Tina Brown. There was just a bunch of stuff that was art, and then there was everything else.

Art didn't necessarily refer to anything but itself. These days, such an attitude would be considered self-referential, and therefore bad. But in those good, not-so-long-ago days, a work of art was a harmonious world unto itself. It bore similarities to our own world -- or to "a world we think we know," as one of my dearest artist friends once said -- but not exactly. In a work of art every part supported, even if it didn't exactly explain, every other part of itself in that half-mad/half sublime internal logic we sometimes call "dream logic," so that, as James Joyce would have it: its harmony set off corresponding harmonies in you the observer and, on a good day, put you in touch with all the largess of the universe itself. Art didn't necessarily make you want to do anything (art that did would be didactic, or "pornographic" as Joyce said). Instead, it could set off in the observer, listener, reader, an epiphany: our complete and sublime sense of that vast all-encompassing disorder that is an order.

All or which comes off like an apology or excuse, I know. Because I don't know what the Pixies' music was "about." In an interview in this publication, Black Francis (as the man born Charles Thompson was then known, before becoming, as he is now, Frank Black), conceded that he didn't know either. "Maybe it's about rock music," he finally averred.

At the BBC is about rock music. There are shuffle beats, and big guitars, and blues licks, and quasi-poetic language that suggests . . . what? I suppose there's "topicality" in the image of all that pollutant sludge from New York and New Jersey in "Monkey Gone to Heaven." Two songs not included here (though they were on last year's Death to the Pixies) hint at sexuality: "Bone Machine" ("Your bone's got a little machine") and "Gigantic" ("a big, big love"). And there are whores in "Hey" (included on BBC), but the word soon becomes divorced from conventional associations.

The antecedents to the Pixies aren't clear. (Talking Heads 77? Richard Hell?) And though they're considered vastly influential, I can't think of anyone who really sounds like them. Kurt Cobain paid them homage and mainstreamed their sense of dramatic dynamic shifts, their big guitars, their oblique wordplay. But I never heard anyone say Nevermind (1991) sounded like Bossa Nova (1990). Instead, the Pixies are simply everywhere, blasted into a million bits and scattered through every alternative-rock single on the radio, the way bits of Jean-Luc Godard are scattered through the American movies of the '60s and '70s.

So there's sex and menace and yearning and sadness all through these songs, and, of course, ecstatic, cathartic release -- from what we're never sure. The sexual imagery -- the whores, the bone machine, and even the gun of "There Goes My Gun" -- draws its power from the special context of songs that are probably as much about guitars and dynamics and the alter-ego faded whispers of Black Francis and bassist Kim Deal as they are about sex or anything else. They're about rock music. They're sexual the way, say, a No. 5 tin can sunk into the middle of a Robert Rauschenberg canvas is sexual, or the way all rock music is about sex.

There's little on At the BBC that the band's other albums haven't covered sufficiently. Five of the 15 songs were also on the 21-track double-CD Death to the Pixies. If you own both CDs, you can have three versions each of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Wave of Mutilation." But no single version of any Pixies song differs all that much from any other version. To my ears, the Pixies created performances in the studio and then tried, as best they could, to re-create those performances in live shows. The second disc of Death to the Pixies gained a bit of immediacy simply from the recorded band-audience interaction and from the band's decision to do a couple of songs softly that they'd done loud on the studio albums. But the songs of At the BBC are, after all, studio recordings, even if it's a radio studio. These are not Dick's Picks or alternate takes of Charlie Parker.

And yet, here again are those songs, and the sequence is undeniably peppy, from the Beatles' "Wild Honey Pie," with Black Francis at his screaming best, to speaking-in-tongues "Levitate Me," whose bridge now sounds as a creepy antecedent to Nirvana's "All Apologies." There's the blood-beach Beach Boys of "Wave of Mutilation," and everywhere the juxtaposition of single-string blues raps and Dick Dale/Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western guitars in full gallop. Every part is ordinary, every part familiar, and yet they always leave you wondering: "How did they think to put these disparate parts together in one song?" What possesses Frank Black in the midst of soccer-cheer choruses and beyond-earnest yearnings for white-rock transcendence to stop and exclaim, part Little Richard, part John Wayne: "Come on, Pilgrim, you know she loves you!" Now that's art.


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