REVIEW: Pixies' wilful streak to the fore in potent yet vexing Birmingham show
Peter Ormerod reviews Pixies at the O2 Academy, Birmingham
You could call it no-nonsense: two hours, 39 songs, the bare minimum of stage chat or showmanship or theatricality, the pretty much static four-piece band blazing a barrage of track after track after track. But this is a band who delight in the twisted and the surreal, whose best work is shot through with a deep oddness. Nonsense, or at least a certain high form of it, comes as standard with Pixies.
This lies at the heart of a gig that, for all its intense highs, was really quite frustrating. The sort of bloody-mindedness that will always save them from blandness can easily manifest itself as petty awkwardness. We can never expect Pixies to be crowd-pleasers, but they didn't half test the patience at times.
Pixies' first two albums, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, are stone-cold classics of alternative rock; their punch and purpose still startle, three decades on, and they paved the way for the likes of Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. Their third, Bossa Nova, is a more rambling and less focused affair but great songs nevertheless abound. The strain really shows on Tromp le Monde, released in 1991, with inspiration spread thin. Still, those four records are close to the hearts of countless fans, every word, snare-thwack, guitar-screech and bass-thrum committed to memory. No surprise then that, when songs from those days were played, the whole place lit up within milliseconds.
The problem was that they have a new album, Beneath the Eyrie; it came out three days before the gig and they are evidently very proud of it, to the extent that they played every one of its 12 tracks. The right of bands to perform fresh material should always be defended: it keeps them vibrant and alive and stops them becoming their own tribute act. But no matter how good their new work may be, it will inevitably fail to resonate in the same way as their old work. There are some decent songs - On Graveyard Hill and In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain may well become setlist staples - but it seemed almost unfair to place them in such illustrious company. Then there is that fact that music so connected to memory: a great many Pixies songs will be bound up with recollections of distant times in our lives. Being reminded of last week isn't quite the same. Pixies' determination to do their own thing is entirely laudable, yet here it served to kill whatever momentum had built up.
The good news though is that Pixies' best songs are up there with the best of anybody's, and they still attack them with great vigour, so the peaks of the show reached great heights indeed. It perhaps took a while for the crowd to get going, but Rock Music, Gigantic and Planet of Sound helped fire things up before the inevitably explosive Debaser. It can be easy to caricature Pixies as abrasive and aggressive and overly reliant on the quiet-loud-quiet-loud dynamic, but it's the sheer loving craft of their songwriting that often sets them apart: the melodic grace of Here Comes Your Man and eerie desperation of Cactus proved especially potent. They rock like few others, but are equally adept at the beguiling and sinuous - although, this being Pixies, with the emphasis on the sinew.
They still sound the part, too. Black Francis retains his unsettling ability to switch effortlessly and instantaneously from heavenly pleading to howls that seem emanate from the pits of Sheol. Joey Santiago's guitar is as piercing and lilting as ever. Paz Lenchantin is too good a bassist and singer to be regarded merely as Kim Deal's replacement, bringing a preppy-gothic vibe to proceedings, while Dave Lovering remains endearingly goofy while drumming with an icy precision. They all look they're members of quite different bands, which adds considerably to their misfit charm.
It all made for a show that was at times riotous, at times gorgeous and at times a bit, well, irksome. Pretty much everyone will have got all the songs they wanted; it's just that they will have got much else besides. Then again, perhaps that's why we love them.
* Visit www.pixiesmusic.com for details of future tour dates
I've Been Tired
On Graveyard Hill
Planet of Sound
All the Saints
Here Comes Your Man
Ready for Love
The Holiday Song
Bird of Prey
This Is My Fate
Wave of Mutilation
Los Surfers Muertos
Brick Is Red
Monkey Gone to Heaven
No. 13 Baby
Ed Is Dead
In the Arms of Mrs. Mark of Cain
Motorway to Roswell
Where Is My Mind?
* Support came from The Big Moon, a tremendously slick and accomplished London band whose playful, bright, bold and big-hearted songs swiftly won over the crowd. The songs show a flair for arrangement and invention; they were nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2017 and there was ample evidence here that they will go on to greater things still. Visit www.thebigmoon.co.uk for details.