Pixies – Surfer Rosa – Classic Music Review

Nice tits.

What’s striking about those tits is that they look perfectly natural. Having recently studied the history of modern porn from the first issue of Playboy to the present, I have concluded that tits have gone through three phases of development:

  • The Natural Phase: Tits as determined by genes inherited from mom, dad or the mailman
  • The Inflated Phase: Tits rounded out and inflated due to the extra shots of estrogen and progesterone in birth control pills
  • The Bimbo Phase: Large and “perfectly” shaped tits fashioned by saline or silicone implants

I developed this taxonomy of tits after spending an afternoon with my hardcore lesbian cousin and her multi-gigabyte collection of adult female porn. Her collection is carefully curated and organized, so I asked her to organize her pics by date of publication so we could view changes in tit development over time. The chronology clearly shows that the natural tits of Betty Page and Marilyn Monroe started to give way to inflated tits in 1966, and other than the occasional sop to small-tit connoisseurs, hormone-enhanced tits dominated the pictorials from that point on. Fake tits entered the picture in the ’80s, but consistent “perfection” would elude plastic surgeons until the 21st century. It’s obvious when you look at some pornstars from the ’90s that their saline bags have gravitated towards the nipple, resulting in a look my cousin defined as “tit sausage (nichons de saucisse).” Recent porn is dominated by the bimbo look, marked by perfectly round, gigantic tits accompanied by fat-augmented lips that make women look more like circus clowns than sex kittens.

But I digress.

We agreed that natural and hormone-enhanced tits were the most pleasing to the eye, and that breast augmentation/reconstruction should be reserved for the unfortunate women who have had to undergo mastectomies. I don’t think our joint opinion will have any impact on the tit-building industry because modern cultures have made tits a commodity, and “bigger is better” dominates the field just like extra-large cokes and super-sized fries. The Mayo Clinic suggests that breast augmentation “might help you improve your self-confidence,” and when a respected institution like The Mayo Clinic argues that a purely cultural bias is a valid reason for a medical procedure, it should tell you that tits are an important revenue stream in the health care field.

The “self-confidence” selling point arises from two sources. It’s validating when a woman walks into a night club and causes heads to turn—and nothing draws a man’s attention as effectively as a respectable rack. But unbeknownst to most men, women pay just as much attention to racks as men do—and I’m not just talking about gay women. Women are always checking out each other to see how they “stack up” in comparison. Somehow, shelling out serious bucks to own a better rack than your girlfriend builds “self-confidence.” Natural tits have become passé in our totally fucked-up world.

Yes, but what the fuck does all this tit play have to do with Pixies?

Glad you asked! In preparation for this review, I listened to three commercially successful records from the ’80s:

  • Songs from the Big Chair by Tears for Fears
  • The Stone Roses
  • So by Peter Gabriel

All these albums (and many more ’80s recordings) are marked by the sound of drums enhanced through gated reverb to give the music a more cinematic wide-field sound. It is one of the distinguishing features of ’80s music (along with cheesy-sounding synthesizers). Those horrid production values led me to define the ’80s as a decade largely marked by fake sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Huh. U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” just popped into my head. I wonder why.

Anyway, when the Pixies opened their first full-length studio album with David Lovering and the sound of natural drums, it represented am emphatic rejection of the sleek and slick sounds of ’80’s music. Like the Punk Revolution, Pixies music represented a return to the rough-and-rowdy, bursting-with-energy essence of rock ‘n’ roll. Combined with Steve Albini’s raw production and the trademark soft-LOUD dynamics, the Pixies’ approach to music would have an enormous influence on a diverse group of musicians who would dominate the scene in the ’90s—Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, etc.

It should be noted that none of the four artists mentioned in the previous paragraph came close to duplicating the absurdist humor in Pixies songs (Cobain came the closest). At first listen, Black Francis’ songwriting style seems like undisciplined stream-of-consciousness, but it’s really more like the output of an accomplished improv actor: the words that come out of his head feel spontaneous but are nearly always tied to a palpable theme. He seems to start with a germ of an idea—a word, a location, an experience—and takes it wherever it leads him without allowing the censor to block the idea’s natural growth.

Opening with that thrilling sound of natural percussion, “Bone Machine” proceeds to give each member a turn in the spotlight, with Kim Deal hot on Lovering’s heels with a memorable bass run reflecting her preference for old strings that strips unwanted treble and brightness from the bottom. Joey Santiago enters with a decidedly nasty guitar riff over which we hear Black Francis shouting, “This is a song for Carol.” The structure and delivery of the song defy convention: the verses are narrated; the bridge features a melody that tracks the bass pattern as Francis and Kim sing in unison; what passes for a chorus is delivered in loose harmony and stop time. “It’s a song about fucking”, Kim Deal said in the documentary Pixies – On the Road, standing up to demonstrate the movement of a woman’s pelvis during a fuck (the bone machine is the “thing” that makes the pelvis go). Carol apparently has a bone machine working on overdrive and all she has to show for it is a case of herpes:

You’re into Japanese fast food
And I drop you off with your Japanese lover
And you’re going to the beach all day
You’re so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me
You so pretty when you’re unfaithful to me

You’re looking like
You’ve got some sun
Your blistered lips
Have got a kiss
They taste a bit like everyone

Uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh, uh-oh
Your bone’s got a little machine

The second verse represents a leap through memory association, harkening back to an incident involving a different bone machine, one belonging to a pedophile pastor:

I was talking to preachy-preach about kissy-kiss
He bought me a soda
He bought me a soda
He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot
Yep, yep yep yep

The concept of a “bone machine” highlights the disconnection between the sexual organs and the part of the brain that exercises judgment. Carol fucks like a rabbit, the narrator gets turned on by her unfaithfulness, the pastor can’t control his repressed libido. In the last verse, the cause of attraction is brown skin that we assume differs from the narrator’s, hinting at the age-old truth that forbidden fruit amplifies attraction because it is forbidden. Attraction is a complex, often mysterious dynamic, but if there’s a takeaway here, it’s something like “know who you’re fucking and why you’re fucking, or . . . uh-oh.”

Pixies are by definition mischievous, and Francis often likes to play the role of a loser, allowing the character to present their loser behavior with a minimum of judgment. Being true to the character makes the point far more effectively than giving us a sermon on the evils of whatever weird shit the loser comes up with. The character in “Break My Body” is an extreme self-destructive type, an honest-to-goodness masochist who repeatedly dares life to pile on the pain. This creature breaks down doors, (probably) fucks mom, and leaps from building to building just for the hell of it. The most controversial line is typically rendered as “I’m a belly dancer/I’ll shake forever and I’ll never care,” but what I hear (and validated by user Blue Grenade on Genius Lyrics) is “I’m a belly dancer/I’ll shake for Arabs and I’ll never care.” The latter makes more sense, especially if you avoid the mistake of viewing it through a post 9/11 lens (and yes, there are male belly dancers). My take is that the song is about how people revel in their own victimization, but as blog critic Gordon Hauptfleisch concluded, what really matters is “It has a good beat and you can run a record store to it.” Two minutes of percussion-driven overdrive, distorted guitar pushing the edges of dissonance, unrestrained vocals from Francis and Kim Deal . . . then the sudden switch to muffled guitar, the drums now front and center to support the vocal duet, then—drop-dead silence. While they certainly took an unusual build path to get there, that closing passage raises the tension to the nth degree like that moment in the horror flick when the idiot is about to open the door that no one in their right mind would open and then . . . tune in next week for the thrilling finale! Arrgh! Whether “Break My Body” is the prototypical Pixies song (as Mr. Hauptfleisch argued) is good fodder for a barroom debate, but I’ll say this: I can’t imagine any other band on the planet coming up with a song quite like it.

The Pixies were given ten days to record and wrap up the album, but they got down to business and pretty much finished Surfer Rosa in a week. That left them lots of time to mess around with “experimental stuff basically to kill time.” As true in music as it is in science, some experiments work and some don’t. For “Something Against You,” Albini ran Black Francis’ vocal through a guitar amp to achieve a “totally ragged, vicious texture.” I suppose some sort of backhanded congratulations are in order, for the vocal is certainly ragged, but a.) it’s impossible to make out the words because b.) the mix doesn’t separate the vocal enough from the already ragged background featuring a combination of detuned rhythm guitar and high-distortion lead/rhythm. The lyrics consist of one line repeated several times and a closing shot: “I’ve got something against you/Oh yeah, I am one happy prick,” a wonderfully economic statement on the human tendency to take pleasure from resentment. I just think it would have been better if Francis had shaped it into a haiku and delivered the vocal from some misty mountain top.

“Broken Face” is one of the more punk-oriented pieces on the album, burning hot, hard and fast as it rips through its tale of incest in about a minute-and-a-half. The narrator seems to be the defective result of a multi-generational orgy within the family (“There was this boy who had two children with his sisters/They were his daughters/They were his favorite lovers), and at first I thought Black Francis’ imitation of the disabled kid’s speech mannerisms was rather cruel. It took me a while to shift blame to the senseless idiots who sired the kid, and though I’m still not entirely comfortable with the piece, I love the ass-kicking noise of it all.

Kurt Cobain loved Pixies music and fully acknowledged their influence, but his admiration did not prevent him from lodging a complaint with management: “I wish Kim was allowed to write more songs for the Pixies because ‘Gigantic’ is the best Pixies song and Kim wrote it.” Well, no . . . not quite. Here’s the real story as related by Kim Deal’s then-husband John Murphy in Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies:

MURPHY: Charles [“Black Francis”] came up with the riff, but he wasn’t really sure what the lyrics were going to be, so he goes, “Eh, well, Kim, why don’t you take a shot at it? The only thing I know is that I want to call it ‘Gigantic’,” and she says, “Fine.” So she comes home with it and she’s playing it on the guitar and I said, “Gigantic, okay, maybe it’s about a big mall.” She goes, “Okay, let’s try that for a while,” and I’m like, “The mall, the mall, let’s have a ball.” So I wrote that. It changed to “Hey, Paul”, because it had to rhyme. And then, a couple of days later she had fixated on this Sissy Spacek movie Crimes of the Heart about this farmworker, I think he’s a black guy, and Sissy Spacek and this farmworker get together – so that’s what it’s about. An illicit love affair.

While Kurt didn’t have the whole backstory, I do agree with his sentiments, but I would have lodged a slightly different complaint—something like, “Hey, guys, are you trying to force Kim out of the band or what?” As things turned out, Kim’s presence on Pixies albums would never come close to her near omnipresence on Surfer Rosa, where she sang lead, harmony or unison on a majority of tracks. She would only get one half-credit for songwriting on Doolittle (“Silver”) and zero on the last two Pixies efforts. When the guys rejected her original compositions as “not Pixies songs,” she formed The Breeders, in turn reducing her commitment to Pixies, in turn leading to a lot of bad juju, yada, yada, yada.

There are different mixes of “Gigantic” (the Albini version on the album, the Gil Norton version on the single), so feel free to choose one that suits your tastes. For me, the mix doesn’t matter all that much, as what draws my attention and twiddles my diddle is Kim’s vocal. There’s a wickedness in her voice as she anticipates that “hunk of love” drilling into her sweet spot (“Hey Paul, hey Paul, hey Paul, let’s have a ball”); her voice shifts to unbridled ecstasy as he delivers the goods:

Gigantic, gigantic, gigantic
A big, big love

Though I think large dongs are highly overrated and I can’t stand chick flicks, “Gigantic” never fails to thrill me.

The flip side of the “Gigantic” single was “River Euphrates,” also remixed by Norton. While the lyrics are clearer and the sound cleaner on the single, I have a strong preference for the album version for two reasons: one, Joey Santiago’s introduction is deliciously dissonant on the album, and somewhat “straightened out” on the single; and two, the “ride, ride, ride” vocals on the album sound sweeter and more natural. You’ll notice that Kim has to catch her breath a couple of times within the phrase, something that technically qualifies as poor breath control but is oh-so human (go ahead and try to duplicate the vocal and home to appreciate its difficulty). I just love how Black Francis’ mind works: “Oh, I’m out of gas in the middle of the Gaza strip, but let’s just put that jack to work, grab a couple of tires and float down the Euphrates!” No obstacle is insurmountable for Charles Michael Kitteridge Thompson IV!

“Where Is My Mind?” builds on a question you commonly pose to yourself when you forget to . . . don’t recognize . . . fuck things up . . . have a brain fart. “Okay,” you say, “But what’s the song about?” Black Francis explained exactly how I would have explained it, so rather than plagiarize, I shall cite this quotation I found on Shmoop:

I can’t explain it to you; I just think the song is likable. Even though Kim barely sings on it, there’s something about her singing that little haunting two-note riff. The same thing with Joey, he’s got a little two-note thing going on too. It’s so simple, and then there’s me in the middle singing the wacky cute little lyrics. So it’s kind of a quintessential Pixie song. It sort of displays everyone’s personalities. The song has something very likable about it and I’m not sure what it is.

Certain songs just make you feel good. You can identify the components that contribute to the “feel good” vibe of “Where Is My Mind?” (major key, minor chords used to strengthen melodic flow before returning to an uplifting major chord to finish the phrase, sufficient variation without going overboard, nice swaying beat, the stick-in-your-head two-note patterns described above, the relaxed execution), but getting the right ingredients doesn’t always result in a dish that wows the dinner party. According to standard pop formulae, “Where Is My Mind?” shouldn’t make you feel good because the lyrical lines are imbalanced and there isn’t a single rhyme in the mix. I think the key here is in the magic of the four different musical personalities, each making a distinctive contribution to a satisfying whole. At their best, Pixies are just fucking fun to listen to.

We now return to the catalog of life’s losers, and the ultimate loser in any society usually winds up in prison sooner or later unless they’re white and have enough money to float bail and afford a crack legal team. We don’t know what he’s done to earn the time, but we find the loser in “Cactus” sitting on the cement floor of his not-so-cozy bungalow bemoaning separation from his squeeze. The strong, steady thumping beat and dark minor-key guitar distortion form a background that reflects a feverish obsession, and in a voice that sounds like the whimper of a man breaking down from the experience of enforced isolation, Black Francis informs us that our anti-hero’s obsession has to do with a specific piece of apparel:

Sitting here wishing on a cement floor
Just wishing that I had just something you wore
I’d put it on when I go lonely
Will you take off your dress and send it to me?

The italics (mine) serve to identify Kim’s flashes of vocal harmony that appear in the closing words to each verse, one of those little touches in a song that make all the difference in the world (enter “Count Basie Theory” in the site search box for more information). The expressed desire to wear her dress (rather than stuff it under his pillow for a comforting beddie-bye scent) gives me the impression that the man may have been tagged to serve as the female partner in one of those prison shower romances, and Kim’s spot vocal tacked onto the narration reinforces that impression. It’s obvious that the guy is desperately trying to hold onto his heterosexuality (“I miss your kissin’ and I miss your head”) but the paranoia induced by isolation consistently leads him to worst-case-scenario thinking (“And a letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead”). The last request to his long-lost love can be interpreted as the ravings of a sicko, a plea for proof that she is still among the living or the cry of an overwrought man with an unfathomable desire to experience intimacy at the cellular level:

Bloody your hands on a cactus tree
Wipe it on your dress and send it to me

While “Cactus” lacks a proper chorus, the verses are the most conventionally-structured poetry on Surfer Rosa, with an AABB rhyme scheme. While I think that sop to tradition makes the song more accessible, our anti-hero is unlikely to evoke much sympathy from lock-’em-up Americans. Here’s a tip for those of you who have an empathy deficit: on your next vacation, head to the great city of Philadelphia, skip the Independence Hall hoo-hah and drop by the Eastern State Penitentiary. Look long and hard at the prison cells, and try to remind yourself of Phil Ochs’ admonition: “There but for fortune go you or I.”

We move on to the much lighter “Tony’s Theme,” marked by Kim Deal’s loaded-with-naive-high-schoolish-enthusiasm vocal intro and don’t-fuck-with-me lead guitar from Joey Santiago. Tony is the master of bicycling, racing and popping wheelies; the card in his spokes identifies Tony as a future wannabe Harley owner. Beneath the daredevil façade, he’s a good boy who always remembers to mow the lawn after school, a tidbit that seriously diminishes his hero status. It’s followed by the title track that is not a title track but does contain the only reference to Surfer Rosa: the Spanish-language bash, “Oh My Golly.” Opening with David Lovering’s emphatic attack on the toms (natural, of course), the song forms a celebration of a whirlwind Caribbean romance where the narrator and Surfer Rosa make out and get drunk (besando, chichando) under the Caribbean moon. The heart-thumping nature of the erotic experience is accentuated by high speed and truncated measures that intensify the out-of-control passion incited by Surfer Rosa (see tit pic above).

“Vamos” is a different take of a song that appeared on Come On Pilgrim, featuring an opening verse in Spanish where the narrator is considering the option of moving in with his sister in New Jersey, who has told him about the great life in the upscale burbs (very rich, very cool)—the East Coast preppy version of the American Dream:

We’ll keep well-bred
We’ll stay well-fed
We’ll have our sons
They will be all well hung

They’ll come and play
Their friends will say
“Your daddy’s rich
Your mamma’s a pretty thing”

The lines can also be interpreted through the lens of incest, but I think it’s equally plausible to interpret the “in-breeding” hinted at here as something involving social class and not brother and sister (old money and the trophy wife). That interpretation is reinforced by the man’s classic fascination with the hot Spanish maid, the upper-class fantasy extraordinaire. The sister’s expressed frustration that “I keep getting friends/Looking like lesbians” tells us that her enclave may be too preppy for their tastes and that they might have more luck in the less rigid but still superficial upper-class life in California. Lots of drive, noise and exuberance in this piece, with Joey Santiago’s random guitar attacks standing out.

“I’m Amazed” begins with Kim Deal telling her mates a real-life story about how a coach with a thing for field hockey players mysteriously disappeared from campus. That kind of story would draw a lot more publicity today, and somewhere in the coverage, someone who knew the pervert would shake their head and say, “I’m amazed.” Oh, bullshit. You knew something was going on and chose to ignore it. The same is true of the three incidents mentioned in the song proper—all create some form of “amazement,” but none are really all that amazing except to those who have their heads up their asses. The fascinating aspect of the music comes from the Francis-Deal vocal duet that falls somewhere between call-and-response and a half-hearted attempt at a round—chaotic and very effective.

Surfer Rosa closes hot with the blues-tinged raucousness of “Brick Is Red.” The duet that stands out here is the interplay between Santiago and Lovering in the extended intro where both men are ripping and bashing like there’s no tomorrow. The vocal duet featuring Francis and Deal ain’t half bad either, with Kim randomizing her harmonic splashes to arbitrarily highlight words and phrases that may or may not have significant meaning. Though the poetry may not make “sense,” the image of eyes turning the color of diamond—“just the color,” “the frayed color of ice”—forms a picture that is both alluring and repulsive.

What struck me most when re-engaging with Surfer Rosa is how fresh it sounds thirty-two years after its release. The feeling of spontaneity, the direct and indirect humor, the sheer excitement of the musicians as they create a novel approach to rock music—all these come through soft, LOUD and clear. It’s one of those rare albums that expand the listener’s perspective without crossing the line into pretension, and even with its occasional forays into the so-called dark aspects of the human personality, Surfer Rosa leaves you with the feeling that you’ve just had one helluva good time.

One response

  1. “Surfer Rosa” is an excellent example of artful sloppiness, the musical equivalent to the Tower of Pisa.

    Like

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