by Jericho Cerrona
The winding tale of late-period resurgence for one of rock's kings of lackadaisical weird continues with Head Carrier, a record very much lacking in the weird. Coming on the heel's of 2014's unfairly maligned Indie City (an album, by the way, which at least tried to approximate the band's more angular tendencies), Head Carrier lacks the kind of infectious spark which diehard fans might be hoping for. Instead, Black Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago, and newly added vocalist/bassist Paz Lenchantin strip away the abrasion and settle into a comfortable melodic groove. Generally, this tactic works in terms of mostly pleasant-sounding indie rock tunes, but also highlights the moments where they try to recapture some of the old magic as, well, bordering on middle-age embarrassment.
The most noticeable thing right away about Head Carrier is it's gentle playfulness. "Classic Masher" feels almost pop-punky, "Might As Well Be Gone" is an unassuming melody-driven indie gem, and "Tenement Song" has a working-class power pop vibe; complete with a "Hey man!" hook. However, elsewhere Pixies run into the law of diminishing returns on cuts like "Baal's Back", an aggressively lame attempt at post-hardcore punk with some of Black's worst shrieking vocals to date and "All I Think About Now", which would be a criminal parody of "Where Is My Mind?" if written by anyone else, but because the band essentially copy that classic song's chord progression, it's somehow billed as homage. More problematic, though, is Black's lyrical concerns here, which reference Kim Deal's split from the group viewed through the prism of an aspirational narrative. Whatever her reasons for leaving, surely lines like I remember we were happy/That's all I think about now are only telling one simplistic side of the story.
In terms of straightforward alt-rock, Head Carrier occupies a niche which translates well in our age of warmed-over 90s nostalgia. Santiago's guitar leads weave with clarity atop Lenchantin's rumbling bass, and her Kim Deal impression on backup vocals is successful enough. Meanwhile, though Black certainly comes across bored and restless at times, he can still find his way around a hook. The problems arise from a sense that the band seems to think their visceral energy is no longer needed in modern indie rock. In a way, acts like Modest Mouse, The Strokes, and even more recent passing flashes in the pan like Yuck, have merged traditional alt-rock with idiosyncratic touches in a way which places Pixies in an awkward position. Still, the kind of bland college radio rock being churned out here is notable only insofar as it reflects a once great band's weariness at playing the game.
The major failure of Head Carrier is that it's simply average; a collection of so-so melodic rock tunes with the occasional misstep or failed experiment which never approaches the kind of combustible mood shifts marking the band's legacy. There's no danger here. No mischievous irony. No sense that at any moment, a song can morph and change its mood on a dime. In the final analysis, Pixies are no longer peddling lackadaisical weird as their modus operandi, but rather, stripping away weirdness altogether in lieu of middle-age malaise.