Complete 'b' Sides
By: Eric Greenwood
Even though this compilation doesn't rival any of the Pixies' classic studio albums, it is still essential listening. The Pixies all-too-brief career unwittingly followed Devo's philosophy (prophesy?) of de-evolution in that every release was just a little bit worse than the one before it. That's nothing to be ashamed of- it happens to most bands and usually with much greater discrepancy between albums than the Pixies ever allowed. None of its albums is without merit, of course- the formula had just gotten a little tired by the time Trompe Le Monde came out in the fall of 1991, yet it rocked all the same. These b-sides span only four years, but they provide swift insight into the maniacal world of Black Francis and his band of lunatics.
The Pixies stormed college radio with its second album, Doolittle, in 1989 and, consequently, bridged the gap between schizophrenic rock and accessible alternative pop. Black Francis' neurotically obsessive songwriting practically invented the dynamic that is ubiquitous to so many bands today. The Pixies were the first band to turn hyperbolic musical changes into an art form that was accessible to more than just snobbish college radio scenesters. Ironically, the loud/soft dynamic that the Pixies exploited changed the face of so-called "underground" music forever by helping to propel Nirvana to superstardom with its "Smells Like Teen Spirit" single, which Kurt Cobain was often quoted as saying was merely a Pixies rip-off.
We all know what happened to Nirvana after that song took off, but by that time the Pixies' star was burning out fast. Nevermind completely overshadowed Trompe Le Monde because it took the Pixies' trademarked dynamic to new extremes, relegating the Pixies back to college radio limbo to peddle its ill-advised parody of The Jesus And Mary Chain's "Head On." The singles off Trompe Le Monde didn't help matters, obviously. Only "Planet Of Sound" showcased any semblance of the band's former ferociousness while "Alec Eiffel" foreshadowed the weird sci-fi pop that Black Francis would explore as Frank Black on his future and mostly uneven solo albums.
Since the Pixies' demise there's been a pretty paltry amount of releases from the vault. The confusing and unnecessary Death To The Pixies was a waste of time as it compiled a bunch of songs any fan surely already had with a bonus live disc that didn't really satiate anyone's appetite for rarities. Pixies At The BBC came one year later, but, again, despite only two random covers, it was predominantly just a bunch of re-recordings of familiar songs. Only now with the release of the Complete 'B' Sides – ten years after the band called it a day – do we get to explore the Pixies' subversive side.
I've always coveted b-sides from bands that I love. Somehow they seem to reveal a closer glimpse into the true world in which a band inhabits. This is certainly true with the Pixies as this compilation of b-sides proves. The alternate take of "River Euphrates" that opens this chronological set is wilder and infinitely more rocking than the version on Surfer Rosa (no offense to Steve Albini), and "Vamos" dares anyone to question the band's live stature. It is a flailing three and a half minutes, featuring Black Francis' cathartic Spanish-English lyrical fusion, Joey Santiago's deranged guitar squawks, and David Lovering's incessantly accurate drumming. The dark center of the Pixies rears its head on another live track- a caustic version of David Lynch's "In Heaven (Lady In The Radiator Song)" from the film Eraserhead. Black Francis sounds utterly possessed- his voice cracking and splaying amidst all the distortion.
"Manta Ray" ushers in the familiar sounds of the Doolittle period, circa 1989- Kim Deal's rumbling bass line foreshadowing the explosive guitars to follow. It's a regrettable throwaway according to Francis' liner notes, but I dare say, it'd be a shining star on any of the Pixies' peers' albums at the time. The Pixies' hyper-kinetic rock had startling appeal through its infectious pop sensibilities, evidenced by strangely accessible songs like "Weird At My School." The UK Surf version of "Wave Of Mutilation", featured on the Pump Up The Volume soundtrack, stole the thunder from the punkish Doolittle version and became a fan favorite. Kim Deal's raspy, sexy vocals were always a bonus, becoming evermore more precious as they waned with each successive album due to Francis' insistence that the Pixies record his material. They were the perfect companion to Black Francis' skittish bark, and her live staple "Into The White" reminds me why I was not alone in being so enamored of her. "Bailey's Walk" is the finest rarity of this era, though, as it provides a snapshot of the sheer lunacy this band could muster- even in the context of a ballad.
The Bossonova b-sides don't quite live up to their predecessors even though there are a few exceptions. David Lovering's eerie tribute to Debbie Gibson ("Make Believe") is hilarious when you consider the fact that Gibson's fame had all but vanished by the time the "Velouria" single came out in the fall of 1990. Kim Deal's lead vocal on a cover of Neil Young's "I've Been Waiting For You" just barely outshines her duet with Francis on a second Young homage ("Winterlong"). The Trompe Le Monde b-sides are even less charismatic but anomalies all the same. "Theme From Narc" is a fairly rocking but pointless instrumental interpretation of a video game theme, although it did hint at the tighter rock bravado of the band's final album. "Build High" and 'Evil Hearted You" could've easily replaced "Palace Of The Brine" and the boring "A Letter To Memphis", respectively, to strengthen Trompe Le Monde's erratic sequencing.
It's a shame that a band as abrasive and paradoxical and immediate as the Pixies gave up so easily, especially when you consider how underwhelming both Deal's and Francis' futures were throughout the rest of the 1990's. At least with the Complete 'B' Sides, the Pixies live again, and, almost a decade later, the band still sounds light-years ahead of everyone else.