“The B-sides!” exclaims Kim Deal, her rhapsodically cheerful kindergarten-teacher voice a jolt of pure, life-affirming sunshine as usual, and, verily, that is precisely how the Pixies show last Monday night at Hammerstein Ballroom begins. With, and not to quarrel with the luminous Deal here, what might more accurately be described as “outtakes.”
We have gathered in extraordinarily large numbers and at not-inconsequential expense—as crowds will go on to gather the night thereafter, and the night thereafter, and the night thereafter once more for two separate ticketed shows, the second one kicking off at 1 a.m. Thanksgiving morning, such devotion does this band still inspire—to hear these freshly re-reunited noise-pop titans play their best record, 1989’s Doolittle, in its entirety. Doolittle is awesome. The quiet-verse-loud-chorus conceit long preceded it, of course, and, Lord knows, hardened into eye-rolling alt-rock cliché in its wake, but to witness “Tame” in person, to hear frontman Black Francis abruptly lurch from softly purring menacing niceties (“Got hips like Cinderella”) to howling the feral chorus (“TAAAAAAAMMMMME!!!!”) with the horrific vivacity of Chernobog himself, is to achieve nirvana.
But first, the songs not quite good enough to make the album.
And so, to the rapt Hammerstein crowd’s mild bewilderment, we begin with a four-song suite of Doolittle-era oddities, built from the same unstable compounds as the more celebrated tracks: shrill and stoic guitars squalls from Joey Santiago, a hint of stoned surfer swing from drummer Dave Lovering, bassist Deal’s effervescent bounce, and Francis’s cryptic ‘n’ creepy surrealist ranting. Menacingly spot- and backlit, he spends most of “Dancing the Manta Ray” growling “Do the Manta Ray!” as if anyone present has the slightest idea of what doing the Manta Ray entails; for the brisk, jagged psychobilly jaunt “Weird at My School,” he admits, nonchalantly, “You know, oftentimes/I fantasize/About sex with the nuns at my school.” He’s back to surrealism for the slow, disconcerting dirge “Bailey’s Walk.” And the suite ends, confusingly, with “Manta Ray,” no apparent relation, Deal asserting herself with both a cavernous bassline and a guileless, infectious chant of “My Manta Ray is all right” as the blaring coda rages on and on.
The mildly befuddled crowd claps politely. The Pixies—born in Boston in 1986, messily dissolved in 1993, and first triumphantly reconvened in 2004—are their generation’s nostalgia-pimping gold standard, their arsenal of sweetly vicious semi-hits unmatched and unassailable, but it’s nice to indulge them a throat-clearing 15 minutes to dredge up some of the unfamiliarity and confusion and terror (they are going to play all of Doolittle, right?) to which they always seemed to aspire. And then, our Manta Rays all danced, Deal’s relentlessly bouncy bassliner triggers the onset of “Debaser,” and soon, Francis is howling, “Got me a movie! Oh, ho, ho, ho! Slicing up eyeballs! Oh, ho, ho, ho!” and we are officially kicking out the jams. They are, in fact, going to play all of Doolittle.
Much of these jams are long familiar to Pixies reunion vets: The slurred philosophical symposium “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (the line about the guy who “got killed by 10 million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey” triggers raucous applause), the gorgeously cracked (and tremendously well-named) “Wave of Mutilation,” the joyous power-pop anthem “Here Comes Your Man.” But the fun of these Play a Whole Album in Order deals is the weirder, less immediately beloved tunes. “Tame” (“TAAAAAAAMMMMME!!!!”) is one. The blunt, brutal, multilingual death-polka “Crackity Jones,” tonight a perfect thunderbolt of unhinged ferocity, is another. “La La Love You,” a goofy little trifle with a moaning Lovering on lead vocals, is good for a laugh—or, at least, a smirk. (The numerous video screens, generally a font of the band’s trademark Dark ‘n’ Unsettling murk, switch briefly to bright pastels and jogging hearts of both the cartoon and anatomical variety.)
And then there’s “Hey,” without question the band’s sexiest song, spare and lithe, another mesmerizing Deal bassline coiled tightly around Francis as he grunts some first-class romantic-comedy dialogue: ” ‘UH!’/Said the man to the lady/’UH!’/Said the lady to the man.” He’s still a tremendously imposing presence, his histrionic shrieks and basso profundo gurgles both immaculately preserved, but the Pixies’ deadliest weapon remains their finely tuned sense of absurdist whimsy, as embodied by our beloved Deal, who’s in charge of the jokes (“Is anyone coming tomorrow? We’re playing the same thing. Just to warn you”).
In the Hammerstein lobby is a display case for Minotaur, the new super-deluxe (and furry!) box set that features every Pixies record (on both CD and vinyl), a DVD, several books of lyrics and (invariably Dark ‘n’ Unsettling) visuals, an autograph sheet, and a couple of posters. It possibly weighs more than your coffee table and costs $495. (It’s available at ainr.com.) You might be tempted to wince at this—to note with a smirk that deliriously depraved Doolittle closer “Gouge Away” tonight is backed by video footage of cheering fans, how appropriate, ha, ha—but it’s not like the diehards are forced to consider buying it. The band has simply built up a powerful enough audio/visual mystique that such an extravagance is even plausibly marketable; as a luxe artifact, it’s staggering in its audacity but undeniable in its allure, all that depraved Simon Larbalestier and Vaughan Oliver imagery a perfect compliment to the cracked pop dementia of Surfer Rosa or Bossanova or, especially, Doolittle.
Monday’s show is thrilling when it gives us exactly what we want, including a couple encores full of pre- or post-Doolittle jams—”Where Is My Mind,” “Gigantic,” etc. But that initial burst of less-beloved “B-sides” resonates, too, precisely because it’s not what we want, but still delivers a jolt of malicious unreality that the Pixies slowly, carefully, deviously trained us to need. We may not know how to do the Manta Ray. But we are suddenly overtaken with the desperate need to learn.