Tag Archives: Radiohead

Making Noise

 

If you were to take a stroll down our block at just the right time . . . could be day, could be night, could be any day of the week . . . you might hear the sound of a woman screaming from one of the smaller houses on the street.

No, we’re not having sex. We are neither screamers nor scratchers. We moan and talk dirty in three languages, and the music from one of my fuck playlists drowns all that out anyway.

If you were fortunate enough to bump into one of the locals before you rushed to the rescue of a damsel in distress, they would likely stop you and say something like, “Ce n’est rien. Arielle fait encore du bruit.”

Translation: “Don’t sweat it—it’s just Ari making noise.”

I’m not used to people calling me by my full first name, but my neighbors insist on it. When I lived in the States, I encouraged people to call me Ari because Americans had a hard time with Arielle. Either they went full American and pronounced it “aerial” or tried to show off their high school French and wound up almost choking themselves by trying to gutturalize both the “r” and the “ll” (only the “r” is guttural). After a while it got tedious trying to correct people and I resigned myself to the typically hard pronunciation of the “r” used in the western U. S. You can find the proper pronunciation here.

You may have noticed that my father calls me “Sunshine,” which has more to do with his lousy French than my sunny disposition and blonde locks. He wanted to name me “Catherine,” but because my mother always wins, he had to settle for second place. Given my personality and nasty habits, Arielle is certainly more fitting than Catherine, which means “innocent and pure.”

Arielle translates into “Lion of God,” and when I’m making noise on my guitar, that’s exactly how I feel.

I began making noise in my teens when I was seriously into punk, banging away with a low-end Strat, a Boss distortion pedal and a Pignose amp. I’m happy to report that I have upgraded my setup and now make a ruckus on a gen-u-ine American Strat while plugged into a remarkable device called an Apollo Twin X from Universal Audio, a recording interface that gives me access to several software plug-ins that emulate the sounds of an array of high-end amplifiers. My favorite is the Fuchs Overdrive Supreme 50, but I also use a Marshall Plexi Classic and three amps from Friedman (BE100, DS40 and Buxom Betty). Though I’m sure the Apollo is a wonderful recording interface, I’ve never used it as such. Instead, I just plug in my guitar, open iTunes, slip on my headphones and play along to a carefully-chosen set of songs that help me develop my rhythm guitar skills while getting my rocks off at the same time.

I have two distinct practice playlists: one for making noise and one for practicing vocals. The most noticeable difference between the two is that most of the songs on my making-noise playlist come from the music of my generation (18 out of 22 come from the ’90s and ’00s) while most of the songs on the sing-along playlist come from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. You might snarkily conclude, “Yeah, millennials are pretty good when it comes to making noise,” but I think the data hints at the declining importance of melody in popular music, as demonstrated by the ascendance of rap and hip-hop. As for the noise factor, there was a vast improvement in guitar-related technology in the ’90s, resulting in more effective and more diverse forms of guitar distortion.

Without further ado, I’ll take you through my current making-noise playlist and identify those moments where the excitement of rocking out becomes so overwhelming that I entertain the neighbors with a near-orgasmic scream. Links to YouTube have been provided if you’re in the mood.

Warm-Up Songs: These are generally simpler songs in manageable tempos that get my fingers moving around the fretboard. Comparatively screamless.

  • “How Do You?Radiohead: This two-minute number from Pablo Honey consists of five chords and a raucous fade involving A major variants—sort of like a warped version of “Feel a Whole Lot Better.” I always open my session with this one because I can bang away on A-chord alternatives without ever making a mistake. Anything goes!
  • “Advert,” Blur: When you’re playing rhythm guitar you have to focus on the drummer so you can remain in sync, and it helps to have someone like Dave Rowntree who knows what the hell he’s doing. The song is a mix of two-note power chords and a couple of straight chords in the verse (on “You need a holiday”). That sounds pretty simple but actually requires a lot of discipline and patience because of several instances of extended repetition involving the A-G pattern. The longest pattern (in the instrumental segment) tricks you because a voice counts out sixteen measures but you actually have to repeat the pattern twenty-six times! As Paul Chambers discovered when Miles had him play the same bass part ad infinitum on “All Blues” from Kind of Blue, this is frigging hard. I try to get through it by repeating a quote from Ed O’Brien of Radiohead during each measure—“Rhythm is the king of limbs”—so I can remember why it’s important to keep things together. Instead of screaming when I hear Dave Rowntree give the snare hit cue that signals the end of the torture, I let out a big “whoosh” of heartfelt relief.
  • “Ask the Angels,” Patti Smith Group: This is good practice because of the three key changes, but when the band settles on the F major of the fade and drives this baby home, I usually let out a scream . . . call it a practice scream.
  • “Pills,” The New York Dolls: A solid rock ‘n’ roll classic to loosen up the fingers and get into the groove. I love it when I nail the rhythm and hear Johnny Thunders ripping through my headphones, but it’s more “satisfaction for a job well done” than a screaming moment.

Let It Rip Songs: It’s time to let the neighbors know that the Lion of God is on the prowl!

  • “Listed MIA,” Rancid: “Fuck, yeah!” is how I opened my post on And Out Come the Wolves, and this high-speed punk romp with plenty of power chord action is one of nineteen reasons the album earned that honor. The scream comes in the last verse when the boys give it all they’ve got and throw in some handclaps to seal the deal—and I scream as if I’m taking the deepest plunge on the biggest, baddest roller coaster ever. Absolutely fucking relentless!
  • “The Librarians Are Hiding Something,” $wingin Utter$: More Bay Area punk from a band I saw half a dozen times, this one has the virtue of an even faster tempo and hilarious lyrics. The scream arrives with the let-it-all-out finish when Greg McEntee absolutely destroys his cymbals.
  • “Don’t Mess with Me,” Brody Dalle: The challenge here comes from the rapid B-C power chord slides; the orgasmic moments come every time Brody hits that long note on “I’ve got the feeling I can break” with plenty of Cobainesque sandpaper in her voice.
  • “Clampdown,” The Clash: I’ve always wanted to emulate the sound of those propulsive power chords, and thanks to the Apollo I can now adjust my settings to sound just like Mick Jones! The real trial involves restraint—I tend to get too excited and play past the cuts instead of giving way to Topper Headon. You have to be an idiot to play over Topper Headon, and I qualify. Too many screams to count.
  • “M. O. R.” Blur: This one involves a series of two-note power chord arpeggios followed by a let-it-rip chorus that serves as the scream trigger. Sometimes I’ll break off and try to emulate Graham Coxon’s screaming bends with little success.
  • “Play You Out,” Mind Spiders: The Mind Spiders have two drummers, so I have plenty of cues to keep me on track as they alternate between all-out punk bash and a classic rock rhythm. Lots of screams on this one.
  • “Things You Say,” Sleater-Kinney: I ignore both Carrie’s and Corin’s guitar parts and add a third rhythm guitar part of pure power chords, possible only because Janet Weiss is such a fabulous drummer. The varied syncopation serves as a refreshing stylistic change; the scream comes at the end of the song when Corin belts out the line, “It is brave to be alive!”
  • “One More Hour,” Sleater-Kinney: This one is a lot of fun to play because of the three rhythmic variations and subtle downshifts. The scream moment arrives later in the song when they bring it down a notch for Corin’s agonizing lines, “Don’t say another word/About the other girl,” expressing lingering passion and rising anxiety echoed in the ascending chord pattern.
  • “Richard III,” Supergrass: Frantic sliding up and down the fretboard sweetened by a dissonant six-half-step chord combination (A-Eb) makes for an excellent rhythm guitar workout and earns a scream every time they cut from A-Eb to C-Ab-G (what y’all know as the chorus). Perfect for the Buxom Betty amp emulator that features a range of nasty presets.
  • “Cigarettes and Alcohol,” Oasis: Tony McCarroll wasn’t much of a drummer, but all he needed to do on this song is keep the beat and stay out of the way of the Gallagher Brothers. I like practicing this song because I have to spend a lot of time on the lower strings, thus strengthening my callouses.
  • “Lyla,” Oasis: This is one of two songs that are duplicated on my vocal playlist. It’s a song dominated by rhythm guitar (Noel’s solo is brief and to the point) and because the full chords sound better on an acoustic, I switch over to my Ovation for this one. I absolutely love playing along with Zak Starkey, a vast improvement over McCarroll and Alan White.
  • “Gimme Three Steps,” Lynyrd Skynyrd: Allen Collins was one of the best rhythm guitar players ever, and trying to duplicate his timing on this song is a master class on rhythm guitar. I scream whenever I nail it, which doesn’t happen all that often because I get too damned excited.

Stretch Songs: These songs all involve arpeggios, the musical form that gives me the most trouble on the guitar. As noted in my Albert King review, I do better without a pick, but the thumb simply doesn’t produce the necessary edge you need in rock . . . hence the need to keep practicing!

  • “Portions for Foxes,” Rilo Kiley: Lots of arpeggios all over the fretboard make this a challenge for me. Fortunately, there are several power chord breaks to restore my flagging confidence.
  • “Words and Guitar,” Sleater-Kinney: This one frustrates me to the nth degree because it shouldn’t be that difficult. The arpeggios involve a simple chord change from A-flat to C-minor but my arpeggio anxiety tends to get in the way. I only scream when I get it right.
  • “Supersonic,” Oasis: I’ve worked my fingers to the bone trying to master this one. The opening arpeggio involves five strings in the form of an F#m11 chord and I nearly always fuck it up on the downstrokes. The arpeggio leading to the chorus is played on an unusually shaped C#7 that hurts like hell. If I ever get to meet Noel Gallagher I want to study the fingers on his left hand to confirm my theory that his callouses extend beyond his fingertips.
  • “Everyone Thinks I’m a Raincloud (When I’m Not Looking),” Guided by Voices: This is one arpeggio I get right . . . most of the time. I think it’s easier because it includes some open strings. Love the multiple variants on the E chord, ensuring that I get a lot of fretboard exercise.
  • “Bodysnatchers,” Radiohead: When I first attempted this song I was stunned to learn that it demands much more speed than my ears led me to believe, adding to the difficulty of working with the bottom strings at the upper reaches of the fretboard. As is common with Radiohead, the chord changes are brilliant—and more complex due to the heavy use of alternative voicings. Even with the difficulty, I love working with this song and am absolutely determined to nail it someday. My scream moment syncs perfectly with Thom Yorke’s rebel yell after a series of quick chord changes resolve to a thunderous climax on the G chord—and I beat the living shit out of that chord while screaming my lungs out.

Special Bonus Warmup Song!

  • Girls and Boys, Blur: When I haven’t played in a while and need to limber my digits and harden my callouses pronto, this is my go-to song. “Huh. That’s not much of a guitar song, is it?” you opine. Well, no, it isn’t—but the chord pattern is made up of a series of standard chords that are usually the hardest on the fingers (G7, C7, F, Eb, F#, F) . . .  and the song demands that you play those chords over and over and over and over and over and over . . . well, you get the picture. I used to use “You Can’t Do That” by The Beatles (G7, C7, D7/B7, Em, Am, Bm D), as an alternative, but I tended to get pissed off by Lennon’s sexist control hangup so often that I’d miss my spots. My new backup is “We Used to Know” by Jethro Tull (Em, B7, D, A, C, G, F#, B7), which also allows me to practice my dynamic control.

I want to make one more point before I disappear into the ether—a consumer warning of sorts. I can usually figure out the chords to most songs by myself using either guitar or piano, but sometimes I’ll consult the various chord repository websites if I get stuck. This is a 50/50 proposition at best, but sometimes the errors guide me to the solution. The most common error (and it happens A LOT) involves transcribing minor chords in place of 7th chords. The transcription of “Girls and Boys” on Ultimate-Guitar.com features this mistake . . .  and the transcription is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars!

Hey! I think I’ll go rock out right now! Back next week with The Jam!

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.

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