With notable exceptions, it’s always comforting to see an iconic band, who sit so comfortably on the Pantheon of alternative music, refuse to sit on their laurels, and make new records well into middle age. Expectations are usually lowered, so when a band as lauded as Pixies makes such a strong, forward-thinking comeback as 2013’s Indie Cindy, it’s palpably heartwarming to music geeks around the world. however, there is a flipside to this – such was the positive reception and critical success of the aforementioned, Head Carrier was always going to have something of a ‘difficult second album’ feel for the reincarnated band. Regrettably, this shows in the final product.
The opening title track is a chugging, chaotic affair, which hints at the payoff of a melodic chorus that never quite comes. It’s not the blazing start to a Pixies record that we’ve come to expect over the years (Debaser, Cecilia Ann, Bone Machine; take your pick), but it does at least set the tone for the rest of the record. Following track Classic Masher is much more on point – no bells and whistles, just a thoroughly enjoyable pop song with an alt-rock veneer. Sadly, the momentum doesn’t last long into the record. Baal’s Back sounds like a lackluster impression of the heavier side of the classic Pixies material, and Might As Well Be Gone never really finds its feet.
The appeal of the Pixies has always been their duality – the straightforward, metronomic rhythm section, countered with the screaming vocals and chaotic guitars; the whispering verse countered with the explosive chorus. It’s a seminal formula which directly inspired an untold number of seminal artists, and continues to do so to this day. Sadly, when it comes to the godfathers themselves, the melodic half of the formula has gone somewhat awry, rendering the rest of it much weaker. For the record, this criticism does not come from some religious adherence to the band’s classic material. In fact, the last record Indie Cindy had some of the strongest choruses of the band’s career – for instance, Greens And Blues, Andro Queen, and the title track itself. Such musical linchpins are notable by their absence on Head Carrier.
The main talking point is the build-up to the album’s release was that it marks the debut for new bassist and backing vocalist Paz Lenchantin, who previously plied her trade with A Perfect Circle, Queens of the Stone Age, and Billy Corgan’s Zwan. As was to be expected, Paz spends most of the record doing her best Kim Deal impression, as did her predecessor Kim Shattuck on the last record. This is no reflection on either of these women as musicians; more of the necessary constraints of playing bass for a band who, when it comes to bass work, have made simplicity an art form. Still, the new girl has her chance to shine and takes it, providing lead vocals on All I Think About Now. In terms of structure and tone, the track is one of the simplest on the album, and easily one of the strongest. What is much more interesting about the track is that Black Francis recently revealed that its lyrics were a note of apology to Kim Deal, in light of the long-running tensions between the two founding members. The fact that this is the only track where Lenchantin takes lead vocals duties lends the track a certain poignancy, and inevitably raises questions about the future possibility of a full reunion.
Black’s sardonic wit is as strong as it’s ever been, as is evident on Talent. However, a lot of the album’s cuts are too meandering and disjointed to provide a worthy vehicle for the lyrics, which is always going to lessen their effect. Still, the album is not without its highlights. With its creeping verses and incendiary chorus, Oona strikes the right balance between the two opposing poles of the classic Pixies sound. They also finish the record off strongly by reverting to musical type with the excellent All The Saints. Sadly, such glories are few and far between on this record, and there are simply more misses than hits.
Head Carrier sounds like a band making a conscious effort to deviate from a winning formula, perhaps just for the sake of it. For a band 30 years into their existence, it’s highly commendable to continue experimenting, but ultimately, this record sounds like it was more fun to create than it is to listen to.