Welcome to the Music Roundtable, a blatant rip-off of TV Club’s TV Roundtable feature. Here, music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. For this installment, we’re talking about the Pixies’ 1989 album Doolittle, which recently received a three-disc reissue called Doolittle 25: B-Sides, Peel Sessions And Demos.
Evan Rytlewski: Few albums shaped ’90s alternative rock more directly than the Pixies’ 1989 high-water mark Doolittle, which perfected the loud/soft dynamic that Nirvana and a tide of grunge bands would storm MTV with two years later. But just as Doolittle forecast the sound of ’90s alternative, it also anticipated the anxieties about selling out that defined the grunge era nearly as much as those pummeling guitars and tense pauses. Before Kurt Cobain was resisting Butch Vig’s overdubs during the Nevermind sessions, Frank Black was butting heads with Doolittle producer Gil Norton over his plans to gussy up the Pixies.
To say the least, Norton’s hands-on approach was a drastic departure from the “just press record” mentality of the band’s previous producer, Steve Albini, who lent the band’s first full-length, Surfer Rosa, all the ornamentation of a basement sex dungeon. Not only did Norton assert himself behind the boards, bringing Doolittle to a lustrous sheen with meticulous effects and overdubs, he also involved himself with the songwriting process, pushing Black to tweak song tempos (which he did) and to lengthen songs with extra verses (which he staunchly refused). Doolittle’s cleaner, more commercial sound wasn’t lost on Albini, who in an interview a few years later chastised the band. “Their willingness to be ‘guided’ by their manager, their record company, and their producers is unparalleled,” he said. “Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings.”
Albini later walked back those criticisms, which seem overblown now—it’s not as if the Pixies suddenly made a Bryan Adams album or something—but exemplified just how hostilely the underground greeted even the faintest suggestion of commercial compromise at the time. Of course, few today view Doolittle as compromised. While Norton did play up the band’s poppiest tendencies, he did so without defusing the undercurrent of depravity that made the Pixies’ first recordings feel so dangerous. If anything, the jaunty pop of “Here Comes Your Man” and “La La Love You” makes the violent outbursts of “Tame” and “There Goes My Gun” seem that much more subversive by contrast, and Norton’s mix milks just as much venom from the softer, serpentine qualities of Black’s voice as it does from his frothy screams.
Last week 4AD marked Doolittle’s 25th anniversary with a three-disc deluxe reissue. The second disc is mostly repeats, compiling B-sides and Peel Sessions that have been widely available for years (they’re great, but if you wanted to hear them you would have by now). The third disc of unreleased demos is more fascinating, illustrating just how critical Norton’s stamp on the album was. These recordings are rough, with thin guitars, disjointed vocals, and passive drums. Little of the malice or the whimsy in the songs comes across fully. No doubt Albini could have beefed these songs up, but they begged for more massaging than that. Norton gave them the high-fidelity finish they needed.
I’m hardly challenging popular opinion when I say that Doolittle is my favorite Pixies album, but I’m interested in learning how the rest of you rank it. What about you, Josh? Did the band ever sound better than they did on this record? Or did the Pixies lose something when they acquired a real recording budget?
Josh Modell: Doolittle is nearly perfect, and yeah, it seems almost insane to think that this is a watered-down version of anything. In fact, my first thought after hearing these demos—which are fascinating, though essential only for huge fans—was that whoever provided the direction for the album versions (whether that was Norton, the band itself, or some combination thereof) did an incredible job. Take the demo for “Wave Of Mutilation,” which has plenty of spunky energy but very little of the weird alchemy that the actual Doolittle version does. They took a song that was essentially a mess and sharpened its claws. It got stronger as it got slicker. In fact, I can’t point to a single demo on this disc that I prefer to the album version: “I Bleed” gets close, but that might be because its version here is notably close to Doolittle’s anyway. But “Dead” is actually far less crazy than the album version, as is “Crackity Jones.”
As for the proper album, I was just becoming cognizant of “alternative” music when it came out, and Doolittle was sort of inescapable if you were reading SPIN or watching 120 Minutes at the time. It’s rare for an album to hold up as well as it does. At the time, the self-titled Love And Rockets album was more important to me, and that thing sounds almost comically dated at this point, while the Pixies can still play Doolittle every damn night and make it sound awesome. (Not so much the Indie Cindy stuff, but that’s a chapter best left skimmed.)
In fact, I saw the Pixies open for Love And Rockets in 1989. I had camped out for tickets to see the headliner, but by the time the show happened (the Internet tells me it was September 19, 1989), I was just as excited for the Pixies. The band was incredibly loud. Anyway, back to the question: Doolittle and Surfer Rosa are the only Pixies records I listen to anymore, and I’m happy to have these demos as something to check in on once in a while. It’s nice to have this stuff in one package with the mostly excellent Peel Sessions, too. You’re next, Alex. Is somebody going to hate on Doolittle or what?
A.A. Dowd: I certainly won’t. As much as I’d like to voice some objections, and transform this Pixies lovefest into an honest-to-God debate, I just can’t throw any shade Doolittle’s way. The songs, the sequencing, the performances—they’re all too perfect. Unlike you, Josh, I still spin almost all of the band’s records (excluding Indie Cindy, because I don’t hate myself). Come On Pilgrim has the funniest lyrics. Surfer Rosa has “Where Is My Mind?,” which conventional (and correct) wisdom will tell you is the Pixies’ greatest song. Bossanova has that gorgeous floating-in-space quality. And Trompe Le Monde is weird and angular in a way the other albums somehow aren’t. But Doolittle is the masterpiece, in part, because it represents the group at its most cohesive, each of the four original members on the same sublime wavelength. Tension would soon tear the Pixies apart, but there’s almost no hint of it on this album. The members sound in sync, and triumphantly so.
Listening to the demos from a record you love and know by heart can often be a slightly disorienting experience; you’re so accustomed to every single note that even the most minute deviation from the finished product is detectable. I experienced that multiple times while pouring over the stripped-bare ditties on disc three of this package. Doesn’t “La La Love You” just sound oddly sad and incomplete without the goofy “Not so hard” that’s supposed to follow each “Shake your butt?” And doesn’t “Gouge Away” lose a little of its coiled menace without that extra second or two of swelling guitar before Frank Black (or Black Francis, take your pick) starts screaming about missy aggravation, sacred questions, and marijuana? It’s probably just pure familiarity with the album versions, but damn if I can imagine someone preferring these sketchier early takes. I doubt even Albini would, honestly.
Not only did Norton not ruin Doolittle, he arguably found it—and in doing so, he helped the Pixies find themselves. Not that the band lacked for identity on Pilgrim or Rosa; this is one of those rare groups of people that clicked from the moment it was conceived, in a Boston-area garage circa 1986. But Norton had the insight to see the truth about the musicians who hired him: The Pixies were a pop act—a noisy, strange, and aggressive one, but a pop act nonetheless. For all that’s been written about the band’s pioneering of the loud/quiet or quiet/loud approach, the best of the Pixies’ songs don’t so much toggle between two modes as occupy them at the same time. Listen again to “Hey,” which remains pleasantly melodic even as the lyrics turn to mothers having their fingers broken. “Debaser,” similarly, is pure upbeat elation from start to finish, never mind that Black is bleating about the ocular violence of an ancient Luis Buñuel film.
Doolittle marries psychotic gibberish to sunny surf-rock hooks, and I think that surprisingly easy blend is key to my own love affair with the record and the band. Like a lot of ’90s kids, I stumbled onto the Pixies through Kurt Cobain and Fight Club. What kept me listening was the perfect synthesis of punk attitude and bouncy, catchy songcraft. Doolittle was, in the parlance of Back To The Future, that new sound I was looking for—even if, arriving very late to the party at the turn of the millennium, I was “discovering” a sound that wasn’t remotely new.
Still, I can just never quite hear the Pixies in the all the grunge groups they supposedly inspired; yes, “U Mass” has a certain Nirvana vibe, but is there even a hint of Black’s crooked sense of humor on, say, Dirt? I worked backward to Doolittle, only to find out that very few of the artists it influenced learned the right lessons from it. Maybe I’d feel different about the supposed pervasiveness of the Pixies’ style—the way they reshaped alternative music in their own image, as Evan describes—if I had been there at ground zero. Sean, how early did you get into the band? And are you going to spice up this circle-jerk with a little contrarian dissent?
Sean O’Neal: No, I’m not going to add some spice to this circle-jerk (gross, by the way), since it turns out I also have nothing negative to say about Doolittle. Who would have guessed that four white guys in their 30s would all love the Pixies?
I suppose if I have one bit of criticism for this reissue, it would be to add to Evan’s point of just how inessential it is. Like any good Pixies fan, thirtysomething white guy or no, I already own Pixies At The BBC, Complete B Sides, Death To The Pixies, and the so-called Purple Tape, so I’m well stocked on Peel Sessions, rarities, demos, and live cuts, thanks. And although I’m really loving this primal form of “Tame” with Black’s psycho double-tracked “uh-huh-huhs,” like Purple Tape, the alternate versions here are interesting less for what they reveal musically than the illusion of intimacy they create. It’s the feeling—glimpsed in Black’s throwaway “This one’ll be a keeper” before “Hey,” followed by Deal’s girlish giggle—that these guys are your friends, and you’re hanging out with them in that nigh-mythical garage. After all, I think that’s why so many of us gravitated toward the Pixies in the first place: They seemed like regular people, making otherworldly music. (Plus, given the way things turned out, it’s nice to revisit a time when Frank Black and Kim Deal were still pals.)
That accessibility is certainly what drew me to them, as—to answer your question, Alex—I got into them around ’93, back when I was 15 and drumming in a garage band with my own regular people. The guitarist in that group shared my obsession with Nirvana, and together we worked our way through all the artists Kurt Cobain name-dropped in his Incesticide liner notes and anywhere else he’d made his influences known. Naturally, that process began with the Pixies, whom Cobain had explicitly called out by saying he’d tried to rip them off with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Soon I was excitedly dubbing my guitarist’s Doolittle CD to hear for myself.
And while I agree that I never heard too much of “Teen Spirit” in the Pixies, or vice versa—the pedal stomp dynamics, I guess, and maybe the chord structure of “Debaser”—I think the idea of the band’s DNA being encoded into so many alternative rock bands goes back to that “regular people” vibe. Even more than Nirvana (and much like my other favorite group of that era, Mudhoney), the Pixies didn’t look like rock stars. They looked like the people who carried the rock stars’ amps, if they were lucky, or who fetched the rock stars a beer. Mostly, they looked like the people who turned out to watch the rock stars. They looked like me. That was the whole appeal of “alternative rock,” after all—save for the few metal groups who got lumped into that vaguely defined genre just because they didn’t use hairspray. (You’re not going to find the Pixies in Dirt, Alex, because Layne Staley spent the ’80s trying to be Vince Neil.)
Doolittle, the Pixies, and that belief that the right tune could turn any misfit into a rock star certainly wormed their way into my own being and my own fledgling musical career. I spent two decades playing in bands where I borrowed heavily from the Pixies’ sense of proud idiosyncrasy and self-confidence—not to mention their deceptively simple guitar lead lines, and Black’s way of working his singing’s limitations to his advantage through strained, manic inflections. (A review of one of my bands’ albums said I sounded like I’d “taken vocal lessons from Frank Black.” It wasn’t meant as a compliment.) Meanwhile, the Pixies forever colored my perceptions of other bands: Were they more about making their own music in its own weird idiom, or were they just about making themselves look good? Were they as “real” as the Pixies?
Ultimately, the Pixies were as “real” as any major rock group, of course. Black and Deal each had careerist aspirations, and those came to a head almost immediately after Doolittle. By the time I got to them, they’d already broken up in the wake of an anxiety-ridden stadium tour with U2 (but a stadium tour with U2 nonetheless). So while I would probably also offer some very minor contrarianism here and suggest, gun to head, that the unhinged snarl of Trompe Le Monde is probably my personal favorite Pixies album, as Alex points out, I think the reason we regard Doolittle as the apex is because it’s the last record that truly feels like those four “regular people” made it together.
While I was too young and too late to catch the band in its heyday, I was lucky enough to see the reunited Pixies (the one that still had Kim Deal) perform Doolittle front to back in 2009. And while the show was perfunctory down to the stage banter, these songs still worked that old, strange, transformative alchemy on its members—who were by then regular people with decades of additional baggage—as much as it did on me, who’d seen plenty of extra wear of my own. Twenty-five years from its release and, I’d wager, still another 25 years from now, Doolittle has that power.