Rhino // 2005 // 145 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // October 17th, 2005
This monkey's gone to heaven.
The Pixies were perhaps the oddest band ever to achieve off-the-radar God status. Certainly, their music was the most mysterious. A crazy combination of noise and nuance, pop efficiency, and extraterrestrial lyricism, they seemed at once the most experimental of groups as well as one that was deceptively primordial. The setup was just plain unfussy. Bassist Kim Deal would pound out basic notes on her instrument, while drummer David Lovering accented them with a straightforward snare. The rhythm was tight, and the bottom was heavy and strong.
But then Black Francis, or Frank Black (or Charles Thompson, his real name), the portly front man of the band would start to strum his idiosyncratic chord combinations, and the tune would begin to twist. Guitar virtuoso Joe Santiago then added his signature sonic strangeness over the mix, and suddenly the music became something recognizable and repellant, like a rock station received by the SETI project listening device. Thompson's strangled David-Byrne-meets-David-Lynch vocals furthered the far-out feel to the sonic surreality.
It was an offhand comment by Nirvana seer Kurt Cobain that really saw the band's critical fortunes rise. At once, the band's ballooning stardom reached nuclear proportions. Name-checking the Boston-based quartet as the reason his band existed, Cobain pointed to the Pixies music as the stolen foundation for his own punk/pop sound (especially "Smell Like Teen Spirit"). Before you could say "Courtney Love," the Pixies were placed at the head of the alternative music class, and singlehandedly awarded the keys to the kingdom of inspiration.
They should have enjoyed the success. But they were not a video-friendly combo, and shunned the spotlight as much as the public wanted them in it. Thompson and Deal began to systematically fight over artistic control (a songwriter herself, Deal hated having her music continuously rejected). Soon, they were barely speaking. Eventually, after several years and four amazing albums, the group called it quits. Solo projects loomed (The Breeders for Deal, a new career for the re-christened "Frank Black" Thompson), and when asked about a possible reunion, there were no smart-ass sentiments about Hell freezing over. According to Deal and Thompson, it was never going to fucking happen -- EVER!
Well, welcome to never ever. In 2004, the Pixies made the surprising statement that they would be reuniting for a series of "warmup" dates -- kind of chance to get reacquainted with one another and see if they could even work together. These shows turned out to be so successful that a full-blown world tour was booked, and before you knew it, it was 1989 all over again. Selling out wherever they played, the Pixies were still tentative and tense. It appeared as if, at any given moment, the vibe of goodwill and gratefulness would turn ugly and unruly, and fans lined up for what may have been the last glimpse of their gods in service (or a meltdown in front of thousands of witnesses). For those who could not attend, we have this new DVD souvenir from Rhino. Containing more than 30 classic Pixies songs, culled from several sensational performances, this is what live concert films are all about -- great music, played with gusto and drive by an exceptional band, captured by a production team that expertly recreates the setting and the show.
The disc is divided up into two main sections. The first is a full-length concert from the Eurockeennes Festival in Belfort, France. It contains the following musical favorites:
* "Bone Machine" -- from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa
* "Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf)" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "In Heaven" -- from the 2002 album Pixies
* "Something Against You" -- from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa
* "River Euphrates" -- from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa
* "U-Mass" -- from the 1991 album Trompe le Monde
* "Bone Machine" -- from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa
* "Cactus" -- from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa
* "Ed is Dead" -- from the 1987 EP Come On, Pilgrim
* "I Bleed" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Monkey Gone to Heaven" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Hey" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Levitate Me" -- from the 1987 EP Come On, Pilgrim
* "Subbacultcha" -- from the 1991 album Trompe le Monde
* "Dead" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Gouge Away" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Velouria" -- from the 1990 album Bossanova
* "Mr. Grieves" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Crackity Jones" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Broken Face" -- from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa
* "Isla De Encanta" -- from the 1987 EP Come On, Pilgrim
* "Tame" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Here Comes Your Man" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "The Holiday Song" -- from the 1987 EP Come On, Pilgrim
* "Where Is My Mind?" -- from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa
* "Vamos" -- from the 1987 EP Come On, Pilgrim
* "Wave of Mutilation" -- from the 1989 album Doolittle
* "Gigantic" -- from the 1988 album Surfer Rosa
The first thing you notice about the Pixies is how completely anti-rock-and-roll they really are. Santiango could pass for a guitarist, and Lovering looks comfortable behind the drum kit, but Thompson and Deal are like high school science teachers on a strange sonic sabbatical. A little dumpier, a lot older, and seemingly more mature than when they used to taunt their audiences from the stage (they were known to occasionally bring their personal problems into the show), these Pixies become the pioneers that Kurt Cobain championed all those years ago. They prove their mantle over and over again, as their mind-bending music still seems decades ahead of the tired and well-trodden towers of the current plaintive pop charts. What's even more astonishing is their ability to re-create their complex and cacophonous sound live. Anyone who owns a Pixies album knows that something like "Subbacultcha" sounds nothing like "Here Comes Your Man" or "Cactus," and yet the band effortlessly switches sonic gears each time to bring life to their classic tracks.
Sadly, there is no new music here, which does give the show a kind of retro revivalist feel. Many could accuse the group of doing this reunion for the eventual cash grab (they would deserve it, considering the number of middling acts that made millions off their style after the group fell apart), but you get the sense that these shows were a kind of therapy for the band. Thompson is still the clear, crazed leader, running the show with his nearly nonstop performing (Deal only gets two moments to shine solo). But the rest of the band appears happy to play their part, accenting the songs with their undeniable aural signatures. Indeed, anyone who thinks the Pixies would be just as acceptable with studio musicians backing Thompson would be foolish. It is Santiago's sensational axe runs, Deal's direct bass lines, and Lovering's rhythmic flourishes that give these tunes their intricacy and intensity. Someone perhaps could re-create it, but it would be imitation only.
About the only negative aspect of this presentation is the lack of material from the Pixies' final two albums. Bossanova only gets a single song, while Trompe le Monde gets a pair. It is wonderful that they included so much material from their first EP, Come On, Pilgrim, but songs like "Alec Eiffel," "Dig for Fire," and "Distance Equals Rate Times Time" are sorely missed. In addition, the Pixies are a very journeyman-like group, and their stage show is nothing more than 90 minutes of music. No joking, no banter between them and the crowd -- just song after memorable song. Yet these are minor quibbles in what becomes a permanent testament to the power and the glory that was -- and now apparently is the Pixies. Here's hoping they keep it together long enough to release some new material. In the sad state of affairs that is the current music scene, a nice shot of outright weirdness would do the place some good.
Rhino should be proud of this DVD presentation. The concert is offered in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image that appears to be a film transfer of a digital or HD original. This lends the visuals a kind of fuzzy, hazy feel as if passing through another generation of element before presentation. We do get occasional flaring and some strange color-correction issues (Thompson has some odd red splotches on his head during a couple of songs). However, the picture is professional, and since the direction is so skilled, we really don't mind the sporadic murkiness.
On the sound side, we get a Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 Surround mix that does its best to recreate the concert setting. While there are some issues with voice and speaker placement (Deal does sound out of place at times), the overall aural offering is excellent. We get a nice balance between instruments, and the crowd noise and spatial ambience really accentuate the live feel. The bass is a bit underdone, but overall, this is a wonderful decibel delight.
The best part of this package, however, is the bonus material. Consisting of 15 additional tracks (seven of which do NOT appear in the 2004 show) and some intermittent interview clips with the Pixies management and stage crew (no band members, sadly), this is still an excellent showcase of the band's depth and skill. Songs like "Is She Weird?," "Debaser," and "Nimrod's Song" sound great. Taken from shows all over the tour (everywhere from Japan to Texas to a homecoming show in Beantown), this final facet of the DVD helps to complete the Pixies concert story.
While it could have had more band information (this is not a Behind the Music style exposé) -- or just a few words from the group about the reunion, The Pixies -- Sell Out is still a must-own title for any fan of these ferociously fun freaks. This is music that matters, played in the manner in which it is most effective -- with tens of thousands of salivating devotees singing along. If you want to know what Cobain was on about, or just need a refresher in why the "alternative" scene was, at one time, the most vital in modern music, this concert will provide all the proof you need. It is a landmark experience from an equally influential act.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 145 Minutes
Release Year: 2005
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 15 Bonus Tracks with Interviews
* Multi-Angle Version of "Monkey Gone to Heaven"
* Pixies Unofficial Official Site