Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Pixies' Doolittle by Ben Sisario Review

Music critic Ben Sisario takes a look at The Pixies’ 1989 record Doolittle, a masterpiece of rock music from one of the most interesting and influential bands of all time. In just 120 pages, Sisario manages to introduce us to the band members, how the band was formed, their influences, how the album was recorded, the subsequent years to follow, their breakup, their legacy, and their reformation, as well as a thorough breakdown of each individual track - it’s pretty impressive for a relatively short book.

If you were wondering whether the songs had complex, deep meanings or Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis aka Frank Black, the lead singer/songwriter of the band) had a message to put out with his music - they don’t and he doesn’t. In fact when Sisario meets up with Thompson for a three day interview in Thompson’s home in Oregon, very little is revealed about the album by Thompson (besides the fact that he doesn’t own a copy of it!) leaving Sisario to deconstruct and explain the tracks as he sees them. This isn’t actually a bad way of doing it given Sisario’s loquaciousness and amount of time he’s spent thinking about Doolittle, so that even if the band members themselves have little to contribute because they don’t or they want to maintain the album’s puzzling mystery, you at least get an interpretation of the album that’s worth reading.

So why doesn’t Thompson or anyone have anything to say about the record? Thompson was very into surrealism and this quote from David Byrne pretty much sums up his ethos: “Stop making sense and have rhythm. Or have groove. Or rhyme. Or use some interesting imagery. Or be very convoluted about what you’re trying to say, for the purpose of making it interesting for all of us.” Thompson was in his early twenties with little life experience - what was he going to write about, dropping out of college, whining about some girl he broke up with? No, he chose to write about biblical imagery and fantastic nightmares - none of it meant anything (or did it?) but it was better than the alternative. And music wise, he and the band just put together what they thought sounded interesting which worked really well.

There’s actually very little of interest in the recording of the album with the band going in having rehearsed the songs and knocking it out quickly. Their producer Gil Norton elongated some of the songs and Monkey Gone To Heaven was a conscious stab at commercial success (which was moderately achieved) but otherwise it’s a remarkably bland episode for such a mercurial record.

If the recording sounds boring, I was surprised at how even more boring the rest of the band were like in person. Joey Santiago comes across as a pleasant but very dull man with a limited vocabulary (“thingie” is a frequent word used) while Dave Lovering, having given up music, turns out to be doing magic these days! Kim Deal was the only member who refused to talk to Sisario though her rocky relationship with Thompson is discussed.

On its own, the recording of Doolittle is very uninteresting, even to fans, but the Thompson interviews are entertaining and funny at times. Sisario’s illuminating interpretations of the songs are the highlight of the book, giving the reader the layers that Thompson, whether knowingly or not, gave to the album with his lyrics. You have to be a big fan of the Pixies (like me) to enjoy this book and I did find it an interesting read of an album I listened to over and over when in high school. I listened to it again right after reading this and it still sounded awesome, and I understood Thompson’s approach to the album - write some cool lyrics, put it to the right chords, and, meaning or not, you’ve got music that’ll live forever. Thompson truly achieved his surrealistic vision of art and Doolittle is a true rock masterpiece - if you love the album, this book is definitely worth a read. 

The "Pixies" "Doolittle" (33 1/3)

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