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Dead Sharks?

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Pixies--"Where Is My Mind?" (mp3)

I've seen two concerts this month, which means it was a pretty good month. I saw the Pixies in Knoxville and Los Lobos (or just the songwriters with bass and drums) in Chicago. I've become a pretty tough concert critic, so as you read the remarks that follow, remind yourself, first and foremost, how much I enjoyed the two shows.

Both concerts were, in a sense, career retrospectives. The Pixies played their classic album, Doolittle, as well as a before-and-after of obscure B-sides. Los Lobos (actually David Hidalgio and Louis Perez) talked about their songwriting and played a number of their well-known songs as well a number of "newly-discovered" songs that they had written about 20 years ago and that have recently been released as a CD.

I'm sure you see the pattern. In effect, the "fresh" material was that which had rarely, if ever, been heard before, and certainly not live, though it was in no way new material. It's a technique that older rockers are starting to use more and more in various contexts. Neil Young has done it with his Archives, Dylan with his Bootleg Series, Springsteen with his recent release of Darkness On The Edge Of Town plus unreleased songs from those recording sessions.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with the practice. It helps older artists stay on the radar in an increasingly-competitive musical environment and fans like me continue to clamor for songs from those days, so much so that I spent the better part of an afternoon a week or so ago converting old Springsteen performances from YouTube to mp3. I cherish those performances.

The problem comes, I think, when that is all that a band or an artist is doing. Dylan, Springsteen, and Young continue to record and release new material, and, regardless what you may think of some of those particulars, all are managing the twilight or near-twilight of their careers with grace, creativity, and energy. While I can't claim that any of their most recent releases blew me away, all three contained at least several songs that are worth repeated listenings and, in some cases, are top-notch.

The Pixies, however, don't have any new material. Since they reformed and began re-touring to fan and critical acclaim, they have not recorded and released new songs that give us a sense of where they are today. We only know that they can still play with tightness and skill, can still recreate their signature sound with what appear to be the same chops they had decades ago. Los Lobos I can't speak of with the same definitiveness. One of my favorite bands for decades, I lost track of them several CDs ago. Kiko was such a masterpiece to me, such a peak of their career, that I haven't checked in with them much since. What I do know is that their new material is old.

Woody Allen's script in Annie Hall talked of relationships as compared to sharks. As Allen's character tells Diane Keaton's character (Annie Hall),“A relationship is like a shark–it has to move forward or it dies. What we've got here is a dead shark.”

Is a band that doesn't have new material and doesn't seem to intend to ever have any a dead shark? Yes, I think it is. It is not moving forward.

I'm taking the liberty of bringing in two friend perspectives against their will. One friend acknowledges that the Pixies' tours over the past several years are a blatant, overt money grab, and he defends the idea based on the notion that the band never made any money the first time around and that they deserve to. The other friend, who sees every concert through the lense of a Bruce Springsteen show, thought that the Pixies played their show without joy. Though he postulated several theories for this, including a kind of 90's anti-rock concert concert ethic that the Pixies were undoubtedly a part of, he could not get past what he perceived as the band's indifference to their show and audience except on a proficient, workmanlike level (a charge he was unwilling to level at Dylan, who did the same thing).

I don't know who's right, and I must also mention that Los Lobos was the exact opposite: they went out of their way to engage their audience and the debt that the band owes the city of Chicago for over 30 years of continued support. They worked the crowd, paced the show beautifully, left us satisfied and grateful to have seen such a good show. Not unlike the Pixies.

So I return instead to a different fact, that neither band gave us anything new or recent. They worked nostalgia, they worked the past. And when I got home, something annoying about that surfaced.

Much ado about nothing? I mean, both bands played excellent shows that confirmed both their personal prowess and the strength of their best songs?

All I know is this. In 1974, I saw the Beach Boys do a reunion concert. Yes, in 1974, they were already in retrospective mode. The odd thing about the Boys was that they were still recording at that point, had lost Brian Wilson and perhaps another Wilson or two at that point, but they had new albums that they were still releasing full of new songs that they had written. In fact, one of their comeback hits, "Kokomo," wouldn't come out for several more years. The problem was, even though they were still alive in one sense, on stage they were pretending to be the band that had once been, not the band that was. It was an odd dichotomy. It was disconcerting, at least to me. It was weird enough that I can't really name any reunion shows that I've seen since then. Except the Pixies. And they were a new experience for me, since they didn't come on my radar until Frank Black's solo career.

I guess I'm with Woody on this one; I want that shark moving forward. Otherwise, what's the point?

NOTE: as this post was going to press, this writer discovered two interesting facts: 1) that the Pixies may indeed record new material and 2) that the Pixies have sold the above song to a commercial, its own kind of money grab.

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