#390: Surfer Rosa, Pixies
The Pixies studio debut was produced by Steve Albini, former frontman of Big Black and one of the most influential producers of the Nineties. Albini worked on a plethora of records I love — PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, Nirvana’s In Utero, and (perhaps his best work) Veruca Salt’s Blow It Out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt. The man’s a weird genius.
But Albini turned on the Pixies in a pretty big way in 1991, calling the record “a patchwork pinch loaf from a band who at their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock” and that the band was no more than “four cows … anxious to be led around by their nose rings.” YIKES. To his credit, he later apologized. They must have worked it out, because he produced their 1997 record Death to the Pixies, too — although maybe the name says it all.
To hear the Pixies tell it, Albini led the charge on Surfer Rosa’s musical direction. He fed Black Francis’ voice through a guitar amp on “Something Against You” to make his voice even more ragged and terrifying. And the studio banter on “Oh My Golly!” and “I’m Amazed” were both sneakily captured by him, despite the band’s protestations. Maybe he was just unhappy with his own work?
In any case, my favorite thing about it is Francis’ songwriting. I was recently in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, a collection of medical anomalies, and this record really reminded me of it. It’s all body horror! From the feral “Bone Machine” to the more explicit “Broken Face,” all I could see were bodies being ripped apart. I love “Break My Body,” which begs the listener to Hold my bones. Also “Cactus,” which describes a prisoner who wants nothing more than his girlfriend to send him a bloodied dress. Maybe don’t listen to this record if you’re feeling queasy.
It’s not all a wave of mutilation, though. There’s songs about traveling (“River Euphrates”) and a theme song for a little kid superhero (“Tony’s Theme”). There are a few songs in Spanish (“Vamos”) despite the fact that nobody in the band spoke it. Also there are two songs about fish — “Brick Is Red” and “Where Is My Mind?” (Yeah, that’s right, Black Francis wrote the Fight Club song about getting chased by a fish in the Caribbean.)
I know that the latter is the album’s big hit, but my favorite song (and the only single) is the Kim Deal-fronted “Gigantic.” Deal sounds snarky and beautiful, singing about a clandestine romance that I know is tongue-in-cheek but somehow moves me every time. (Bonus: Here are the Breeders performing it with Dave Grohl.)
Steve Albini can think whatever he wants, but I think this record rocks. It pretty much defined grunge. Kurt Cobain said that he “heard songs off of Surfer Rosa that I’d written but threw out because I was too afraid to play them for anybody.” They were bold and chaotic and if they made Nirvana happen, all the better.