On Saturday, myself and other alternative music lovers descended on the beautiful Fillmore theater (formerly known as the State) in Detroit to see if the iconic and influential band the Pixies could maintain its former glory after bassist and songwriter Kim Deal quit the group last year and two EPs consisting of the band’s first new music in more than 20 years were widely panned by the music press.
The Pixies were like the Velvet Underground of the 1980s: Not many people knew about them during their most active years, but those who did were profoundly influenced — life-changing, shot-in-the-arm, I’ve-found-God-and-He-plays-electric-guitar kind of moments — bringing to mind Brian Eno’s famous quote about the Velvets, that everyone who bought one of their debut album’s 30,000 copies formed a band.
Pixies albums Surfer Rosa (1988) and Doolittle (1989) were critically acclaimed and credited with being catalysts for the alternative and grunge movements of the early 1990s. Surfer Rosa ranked No. 317 and Doolittle came in at No. 227 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Kurt Cobain famously said that the Nirvana song “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a ripoff of the Pixies.
Fast forward to 2014. The band did a sold-out reunion tour in 2004 but have only just recently released new music sans Deal. Losing its bassist and perhaps most beloved member is no small obstacle to overcome. According to the New York Times, Deal left after fighting with frontman Black Francis and is pursuing her own work and a reunion tour with her other iconic alternative band, the Breeders.
Now, the Pixies are on their second Deal replacement, Paz Lenchantin of the Entrance Band, after Kim Shattuck was kicked out of the band after only a few months. Shattuck was fired from the group via a phone call from the band’s manager.
“I was surprised. Everything had gone well, the reviews were all good and the fans were super-nice about everything. They were like, ‘We love you, New Kim!’” Shattuck told NME. “We said goodbye at the airport and the following morning the manager called me and said: ‘The band has made the decision to go with another bass player.’”
Francis has tried to play off the bassist drama, saying in an interview with Yahoo: “There’s been a shift in the lineup, big woop-dee-doo…as far as we’re concerned it ain’t that big of a deal.” Considering how important Deal was to the band and the shady way in which Shattuck was fired, it is a big deal, but clearly one that Francis is tired of being asked about.
Aside from the bassist controversy, EP-1 and EP-2 both received heartbreakingly terrible reviews. “Nothing in these four faceless, fatuous alt-rock songs distinguishes them as the music of the Pixies,” reads a one-star review of EP-1 from Pitchfork. A Rolling Stone review of EP-2 contasted the songs to the band’s earlier work, saying the new EP is “lacking those records’ frizzy menace, zany propulsion and memorable tunes.”
The biggest questions going into the show last Saturday were whether Lenchantin could even remotely live up to expectations and how much of the new material the band would force on us before we were rewarded with older classics. As to the first question, Lenchantin was OK.
She did a decent job mimicking Deal’s vocals, but the band avoided more heavily Deal-featured tracks like “Here Comes Your Man.” Having seen Lenchantin perform with the Entrance Band a year and a half ago, when the group opened for the Kills, I thought she provided a heavier dose of girl bass player charisma — an alternative rock stereotype arguably started by Deal — with that group, rather than standing in the background while playing with the Pixies.
As for the new material, the band played three out of four tracks from EP-1 and three out of four tracks from EP-2 in addition to the new single “Bagboy.” The audience was fairly unresponsive to these songs, saving their energy for classics like “Where Is My Mind?” “Wave of Mutilation,” and “Hey.” The group didn’t speak at all and transitioned between songs quickly. Highlights included the audience singing along to “Where Is My Mind?” and “Hey,” as well as guitarist Joey Santiago giving us a noisefest treat during an extended solo in “Vamos.”
Despite all the new material that got a lukewarm reception at best, the band received rapturous applause after finishing with “Vamos” and didn’t even leave the stage before performing a quick encore of “Planet of Sound.” Overall, the strongest points of the evening were filled with nostalgia for the Pixies’ former legacy and old music, something that I can’t say wasn’t expected.
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