Anyone who wants to understand the current state of rock & roll — and the Pixies are as disturbingly current as it gets — has to realize that the music can’t be innocent anymore. It has too long a history, and it broke too many promises. In the ’60s, for those who took it seriously, rock & roll promised liberation, but we’re not liberated; in the ’70s, with punk, it promised destruction, but the world we knew then is still largely here.
Enter the bands of the ’80s and ’90s, for whom rock doesn’t promise anything. But its history remains, pressing in on them from records and the radio. Thus it’s no great surprise to find the Pixies — who formed in Boston in 1986 and have been immensely popular on college radio — starting their second major-label album, Bossanova, with a dark-toned reading of ”Cecilia Ann,” an obscure instrumental by the Surftones. You could say that they’re honoring rock’s history — or that they’re trashing it, by paying homage to surf music rather than to something tasteful and refined like the Beatles.
After ”Cecilia Ann” comes a squeal of ugly feedback, and soon Black Francis, the Pixies’ singer, is screaming something incomprehensible over thick guitar noise and a stringent beat. The band calls this cut ”Rock Music,” and again the weight of all that history makes itself felt. Are the Pixies — the name is an ironic joke: their music sounds more like the work of nocturnal trolls — trying to remind us that rock was once supposed to be loud and destructive?
Next comes yet another song that lives in the shadows cast by rock’s lengthy history, an intense number called ”Velouria,” which has both strangely shivering guitars and a melodic refrain that cascades over the surface of the music like waves crashing on a devastated beach. ”Velouria” improbably turns out to be a woman’s name. There are also songs on the album called ”Allison” and ”Ana,” not to mention the opening ”Cecilia Ann.” So the Pixies have joined the Surftones — and nearly every other band, even those respectable Beatles — in a grand old rock & roll pastime, naming songs after women.
”Velouria,” though, is hardly a typical woman’s name. Like many bands now banging at the door of the rock & roll mainstream, the Pixies sing lyrics that, even when they can be understood, aren’t meant to make everyday sense. Stuck between the songs with women’s names is one called ”Is She Weird,” in which there’s a chorus hammered out with the persistence almost of a ritual chant: ”Is she weird, is she white, is she promised to the night?” The words register as a series of images, rather than as any part of a coherent thought. And the images can often seem as distressing as the slashing, disturbed sound of the group’s guitars.
But then distress is as common in the radical bands of the present as the urge toward liberation was in radical bands of the ’60s. And yet a large part of the world still expects rock to be as chewy and sweet as bubble gum. The Pixies manage to straddle the contradiction — and to do it with grim humor, with dogged melodic grace, and with a sustained intensity. A-