Let’s get this out of the way right away – Pixies are obviously one of the greatest bands of all time. During their original run from 1986 to 1993, they amassed one of the most perfect discographies any band has ever managed. That includes the sometimes wrongly overlooked Bossanova and Trompe le Monde, which easily match up to their predecessors, and even the B-sides collection is pretty solid. So in a way it’s understandable that for years after their 2004 reunion, fans were apprehensive about the idea of any new material, particularly in the wake of that year’s now rightly forgotten one-off single ‘Bam Thwok’. Kim Deal’s reluctance was apparently the primary reason that no more was forthcoming, so her departure from the band in 2013 finally freed the others to get down to it. As it turned out, comeback single ‘Bagboy’ was actually hugely promising, seamlessly updating the classic Pixies sound with LCD Soundsystem-like elements, but the ensuing EPs, later collected together as new studio album Indie Cindy, showed the band moving into far blander territory that might be forgivable on a new Frank Black solo record, but as a Pixies album it suggested they’d almost entirely forgotten what they’re supposed to sound like.
Fast forward to 2016 and we have their 6th full length, Head Carrier – their first with A Perfect Circle and Zwan’s Paz Lenchantin as a full time member in Deal’s place, after one time The Fall and PJ Harvey band member Simon ‘Ding’ Archer filled in on bass on the last record. First single ‘Um Chagga Lagga’ suggested they might have rediscovered some of their old manic charm that was largely missing from the last record (‘Blue Eyed Hexe’ aside). And to be fair to the new LP, they do sound more like the Pixies of old – the intro to ‘All I Think About Now’ even recycles that of ‘Where Is My Mind?’ The only problem is, sadly, most of the songs here just aren’t very memorable. It’s certainly not all bad – ‘Baal’s Back’ is a fairly spirited successor to raging sub-two minute oldies like ‘Rock Music’, even if Black Francis’ scream isn’t as thrillingly unsettling as it once was, ‘Tenement Song’ manages a pretty catchy chorus full of great Lenchantin harmonies, and Joey Santiago’s lilting, tropical guitars on ‘Plaster of Paris’ recapture Bossanova’s surfier moments, but much of the album drifts by somewhat aimlessly, while ‘Classic Masher’ actually sounds like the kind of trite late 80s/early 90s alt-rock that this band were once the antidote to.
Francis’ message to Deal on the aforementioned ‘All I Think About Now’ – sung by her replacement – is fairly heartwarming though (“If you have any doubt, I want to thank you anyhow.”) Lenchantin makes her presence felt here, also singing co-lead vocals on ‘Bel Espirit’ while her bass and harmonies throughout the record make for a fairly convincing Deal impression. But where the guitars have returned to Trompe le Monde levels of savagery, they’re also let down by the overly compressed production throughout, having finally strayed from their more capable usual producer Gil Norton.
Where Indie Cindy felt bloated, this time round they’ve made a wise return to shorter songs and a sharper 33 minute run time, their shortest since Surfer Rosa – but even then on first listen it feels like it drags somewhat. Repeat plays do make it an easier listen as a few more hooks here and there become more apparent, but it’s not really an album that will encourage many to bother hitting the replay button in the first place – not when they can go dig and out their copy of Doolittle instead. These songs are already fitting a bit more comfortably into the band’s live sets than most of Indie Cindy ever has, but while it might be a marginal improvement on that record, the rest of that back catalogue is a tough, tough act to follow and this record sadly can’t hope to come anywhere near.
In reality it’s probably not just Deal’s absence that’s responsible, as people keep suggesting – only a handful of bands ever manage to live up to past glories after a reunion, and that utterly unhinged momentum the Pixies once had can’t be easily switched back on in middle age, especially having made the leap from cult outsiders to acknowledged legends. At least Head Carrier is merely plainly average rather than actively terrible. Cathal McBride