Surfer Rosa

Pixies first full-length album was also an import-only affair back then (small wonder that the band was much bigger overseas!), but it still caused quite a stir among the indie community as its noisy, abrasive guitar assault, when combined with a keen melodic sense, made it uniquely different from anything that had preceded it. Come to think of it, it doesn’t sound like any other Pixies album, either, and for that much of the credit belongs to recording engineer (he hates the term “producer”) Steve Albini, who would later be hired by Nirvana for In Utero primarily on the basis of their admiration for his work here.

This is a raw, abrasive sonic onslaught, with a huge drum sound, yet many of these (generally very short) songs, particularly on the far superior first half, are also eminently tuneful and catchy at the same time. Francis’ vocals, which can be silly, grating, and awe-inspiringly psychotic in equal measure, are often incoherent, and what lyrics can be made out often come across as gibberish, anyway. His off center, at times effeminate vocals certainly are unique, though, and he’s often joined by Kim Deal on some delicious harmonies. She gets a lead vocal too, and wouldn’t you know it if “Gigantic,” simply a great pop rock song, became their biggest hit to date, much to Francis’ chagrin.

Other highlights, again almost all of which appear on the first half of the album, are oddly catchy (dare I say it, cute) songs such as “Bone Machine,” “Break My Body” (that’s one hell of a groove there), and “Broken Face” (all 1:30 of it). Even better is “River Euphrates,” which features a lovely intermingling of voices, though Francis also screams his head off as per usual. I’m not sure if there even are actual lyrics to this song, but it sure sounds good, and so does the dreamy, melodic “Where Is My Mind,” the album’s most memorable song which joins “Gigantic” as Surfer Rosa‘s inarguable classics (p.s. it ends suddenly because they ran out of tape!). Unfortunately, the rest of the album is seriously underwritten, making it somewhat less than the “masterpiece” reputation that many have accorded it. Still, even the tossed off songs are generally entertaining even if they could’ve been more fully fleshed out, and the album’s short between song snippets (Albini’s idea), though also hit and miss, generally add to the album’s charming overall ambiance.

Aside from “Vamos,” an unnecessary remake of a Come On Pilgrim track (this version is much longer though not better), and “Brick Is Red,” the stellar finale that’s based around a simple, melodic guitar solo, I’d be hard pressed to recall much about the rest of side two’s songs, which tend to blend together in my mind. Yet I suppose it is the album’s excitingly schizoid sound, especially those aggressive, razor sharp guitars, that makes Surfer Rosa a classic (albeit a minor classic) rather than its individual songs, excellent though several of those are. This album has tons of character, plain and simple, and the band’s innovative use of dynamics and their thriving band chemistry would greatly influence the subsequent Lollapalooza generation (BMG’s music catalog once described alternative music as “sounds like the Pixies”). That said, for all the album’s undeniable strengths, the hit-or-miss songwriting ultimately leaves me with the impression of an incredibly promising young band that hadn’t yet reached their full potential.

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