‘Doolittle 25′ Affords a Closer Look at the Pixies’ Classic Album
There is no band like the Pixies, and there is no album like 'Doolittle.'
Nirvana managed to cop Black Francis' throat-shredding howl, sense of dynamics, and warped pop songcraft without sounding, really, anything like the Pixies; bands as diverse as Modest Mouse and System of a Down picked up the art of creating albums-as-funhouses, stacking stream of consciousness images on top of vocal performances that turn on a dime from apathetic to apoplectic. But no one combined all of these elements like Black Francis and the band.
'Doolittle,' the band's first major label record, is their definitive document, a compact suite that unites themes of destruction and desire with the band's trademark sounds. With the aid of producer Gil Norton, who reportedly worked closely with the band on tightening and beefing up their sound, what the band released was the rounded, lean record they deserved to make since they broke out two years before.
Critics gave 'Doolittle' a tentative thumbs up, often with a post-script reminder that major label values and indie music rarely sit well together for too long.
The album is more contained and enjoyable than its predecessor, the violently-noisy and at times meandering 'Surfer Rosa,' recorded just a year before and produced by Steve Albini, the longtime studio engineer known for encouraging his clients' noisier tendencies. Critics, nervous that the record was maybe too shiny, gave 'Doolittle' a tentative thumbs up, often with a post-script reminder that major label values and indie music rarely sit well together for too long. Two good albums followed it -- 1990's 'Bossanova' and 1991's 'Trompe Le Monde' -- but both were diminished by the relative absence of Francis' foil, bassist/vocalist Kim Deal, who Francis was essentially driving out of the band, and Francis' fixation on less-urgent lyrical themes. (Anything is less urgent than the apocalypse.) And the less said about 'Indie Cindy,' the better.
Now, 25 years after its original release, 'Doolittle' is being reissued as 'Doolittle 25,' with two additional discs of material -- two sessions from John Peel's BBC radio program (one recorded before the recording of 'Doolittle,' one after); a set of demos the band prepared before the album's recording; and a collection of B-sides from the album's two singles, 'Monkey Gone to Heaven' and 'Here Comes Your Man.' All of this music has been previously available to fans, some easily and some not, but never so conveniently. The inclusion of the extra material -- well-worth the modest price of admission for the obsessive fan, and 'Doolittle''s got plenty -- affords us the chance to look for answers to some intrinsic questions: How much did Norton influence the band's sharpened focus on the album? How did the band move from the doomsday surrealism of 'Doolittle' to the spacier, prettier 'Bossanova'? And what the hell is up with 'Here Comes Your Man'?
The demos, perhaps the most valuable recordings in the set, show that Francis and the band mostly had it together when they walked into Downtown Recorders studio in Boston on Halloween 1988. Most of the demos were recorded between Sept. 8-13, and already reflected the terse arrangements that came to be featured on 'Doolittle.' 'Debaser' is the album's first track and rallying cry; it opens with a bright weaving of guitar and transitions into a bouncing rock song while Francis screams about "slicing up eyeballs" -- a paraphrasing of Luis Bunuel's 1929 surrealist film 'Un Chien Andalou' and his declaration of purpose: to overload the listener with imagery, deeply personal and often violent but presented at an emotional remove. (The only "I love yous" on 'Doolittle' are sarcastic.)
The demo of 'Debaser''s follow-up track, 'Tame,' lacks much of the guitar noise that colors it on 'Doolittle.' The third verse, which consists entirely of Francis' breathing and moaning, is absent the album version's manic quality -- the amplified sound of Francis' throat, like he’s laying on top of you, which he's been vaguely threatening to do anyway. The demo also lacks Kim Deal’s deadened breathe-singing harmony, which, in sublime moments such as this, reminds us how underutilized she was. 'Monkey Gone to Heaven' and 'Hey' are practically unaltered from demo to album, save for some strings on the former. 'Wave of Mutilation,' the studio album's apogee, was completely rewritten, lyrics and all, from its barely-similar demo version. And thank God Norton produced 'I Bleed' instead of Albini -- the album version balances the whirring guitars that give the song its hallucinogenic quality, and gives Francis and Deal's voices the space they need. Deal repeats "I bleed" as Francis sings harmony, somewhere far off in the mix, as if he's yodeling from the top of a house somewhere far in the distance.
And so on. The demos demonstrate that Norton only enhanced the final product, and that Francis was working the band into a greater concision on his own.
Part of considering or reconsidering 'Doolittle' has always involved the consideration of 'Here Comes Your Man.'
Part of considering or reconsidering 'Doolittle' has always involved the consideration of 'Here Comes Your Man.' While some -- including the band -- have dismissed the song as too light and poppy to fit with the Pixies' sound, in the context of the album, its very presence invites a closer reading. Sequenced between a song at least partly about being gnawed to death by misery ('I Bleed') and another about rape, murder, and still-born babies ('Dead'), 'Here Comes Your Man' is about waiting in the cold next to a boxcar for a shadowy man with a dirty beard. The 1986 demo included here dates two years before the rest of the demos (the song hadn't been officially recorded at the time of 'Doolittle' because, as Francis said in Ben Sisario's book about 'Doolittle,' it was "too MOR to the band's ear") and is inflected with a folk-pastoral quality, as if Francis had written it for the Byrds. As the fifth track on 'Doolittle,' it takes on a kind of darkness -- the nervous waiting is filled with apprehension and dread. Like Lou Reed, who also sang of waiting for an unnamed man, the Pixies twist head-bopping pop into something perverse.
The third verse was not part of the song when the '86 demo was recorded, but was written by Francis at the urging of Norton during the recording of the album. It gives the story a grim climax -- "Big shake on the boxcar moving," Francis sings. "A big, big stone fall and break my crown." You could interpret it as a slapdash addition to the song -- Not harrowing enough? OK, I'll add an earthquake in the third act that comes along and kills everyone -- but earthquakes aren't the only thing that can make a boxcar shake. And who knows what that man, who so callously makes the vulnerable narrator wait around in the cold, might be capable of.
Also included in this set, among the collected B-sides and demos, are multiple versions of 'Manta Ray,' 'Into the White,' and 'Dancing the Manta Ray,' a trio of songs rarely heard, all of which, in one way or another, indulge Francis' odd fantasies of leaving Earth on a space ship. That preoccupation, absent from 'Doolittle,' would obviously be out of place among the album's bloody myth retellings and lusty shrieks. 'Manta Ray' is too great of a mutated '50s soda-shop rock and roll tune to have been left out based on quality -- it's just not as dire.
This kind of escapism is all over 'Bossanova' songs like 'Velouria,' but there's only one song on 'Doolittle' that shares the sentiment: 'Wave of Mutilation.' The song is an identifiable point of transition in Francis' writing. The mood is breezy -- especially in the 'UK Surf' version of the song, recorded in Scotland months after 'Doolittle,' as Francis sings of kissing mermaids and swimming with crustaceans under the sea. ('The Little Mermaid' also came out in 1989.) But the song is called 'Wave of Mutilation.' After Francis sings of driving his car into the ocean -- imagining the suicides of Japanese businessmen he'd read about in the paper -- he sings of driving to the Mariana Trench, and then riding a wave of mutilation. The Mariana appears in the mind's eye like the Earth's soldered wound, the deepest and most buried place in the world, from which one could imagine unleashing the apocalypse.
That's the recurring fantasy on 'Doolittle' -- utter human destruction, dressed up with pop music -- and the essence of what makes it such a one-of-a-kind recording.