In music history, there have only been a few bands who have been able to make a truly great “petty rock” or “revenge rock” record (some might say Pink Floyd have done it, it could be debated if Smashing Pumpkins did it) but the Pixies have definitely added their name to that tradition with their sixth album, Head Carrier. As is already a matter of public record, original Pixies bassist Kim Deal announced that she was leaving the band to pursue other interests in 2013 and, while none of the remaining members made any overt statements against Deal, it just FELT like there was a dark and resentful storm coming. Listening to Head Carrier now though, it’s hard to ignore the possibility that some anger has boiled to the surface; Deal has been replaced with the very similar-sounding Paz Lenchantin, and Black Francis, Joey Santiago and David Lovering have very clearly gone out of their way to draft a better, louder and more pissed off album than any they’ve released in the last twenty-seven years.
… And the only people who might not be able to pick up on the vitriol which flows through Head Carrier are those who simply aren’t paying attention. “Head Carrier” (the title track) opens the album and finds the group in an already petulant and frustrated place as Lenchantin and Lovering set down a pulsing but understated rhythm, Santiago skronks out a distorted, mid-tempo guitar part and the first thing listeners hear from Francis an exhausted mention of the song title. In some ways, “Head Carrier” sounds like every great Pixies song that the band ever recorded, and they know it (hence that sort of “let it blurt” beginning); there has clearly been a conscious effort made to point out that what listeners are hearing is very ‘business as usual’ for the Pixies (as exemplified by the “I’m going down – again” lyric in the chorus), and that Deal’s departure is of no particular relevance, whatsoever. While some critics could easily complain that the song and the way it’s presented simply depicts the band’s sour grapes (“Head Carrier,” as a term, could imply a Cephalophore – a saint depicted carrying his or her own head – and who has usually been martyred), but fans may find a little more to it than that; there is power in the presentation and those of the right mind will be hooked.
After the title track sets the precedent for the playing of the record, those hooks only sink deeper into listeners as the A-side continues. At no point do the Pixies turn down their volume or intensity at any point, but the do find other ways of moving the record along. Perfect examples can be found in “Classic Masher” and “Might As Well Be Gone”; in both cases, Francis’ and Santiago’s guitars jump on distortion stomp boxes, but Lovering never lightens his percussive punch – so the drums (not the guitars) really act as the things which add the energy, and then the guitars just add the color. Before long, that knowledge brings exhilaration with it – especially when it’s mixed with even the smallest amount of adrenaline.
The high energy levels endure as listeners hastily flip the record to pick up the threads left when “Talent” closed the A-side and “Tenement Song” saunters out to open the B-. As soon as it starts, listeners will find themselves overcome with relief because “Tenement Song” shows the humor which was always so important to the best Pixies albums but had been here-to-fore missing from Head Carrier. Here, Black Francis graciously shares the mic with Lenchantin and the pair playfully trade lines through passages like, “Tall bottle and one more smoke/ She lived through the fire but the piano got broke” and set up a really cute and carefree vibe which ends up bleeding into the rest of the songs on the side. Tracks like “All I Think About Now” (which features Paz Lenchantin’s only lead vocal performance on this album), “Plaster of Paris” and the absolutely raucous “Um Chagga Lagga” all have their strong points as well as some weak ones (am I the only one who thinks “All I Think About Now” simply rewrites “Where Is My Mind”?) but play well overall and listeners won’t really be able to say that they could have asked for more when the side finally exhausts itself. Listeners will walk away full and satisfied.
Was that all the band hoped to do though? Just leave listeners with no complaints? There’s no way to say for certain, but this critic maintains that, because the Pixies were simply shooting to prove that they could get along JUST FINE without Kim Deal, leaving no complaints was precisely what they hoped to do. It might not sound like the most positive creative endeavor but, in the end, no one – not bandmember or listener – will be able to say that they didn’t get what they wanted out of Head Carrier; it’s great.
(PIAS America/Sony Music)