I still remember the first time I caught a glimpse of Frank Black on a poster at the local record store. I had just started getting into The Pixies and the raw wailing of the 90's alternative punk god, my mental projection of him being the typical screaming Seattle waif of a front-man. What I saw was a portly balding lumberjack. The delightful wrongness of that image sort of represents the quirky greatness of The Pixies, and my appreciation for them has only grown as of late. After my conversion to Christ I predictably threw away all of my CD's, including a lot of Pixies I now wish I still owned (it usually takes you a few years in Christ to "get" the idea of common grace). A few years ago I picked up the compilation, Death to the Pixies, in the hopes of replacing what I'd lost in the most economical way possible. The result was both glorious and satisfying.
The compilation consists of two CD's, one recorded and the other live. The recorded CD seemed to be a haphazard selection, with representative tracks from their albums just flung together without any discernible arrangement. But from the opening track I was instantly reminded just how BIG their sound was. The guitars tear at your face and Black's shredding vocals are just as beautiful as I remember. I probably would have chosen a different opening track (Cecelia Ann from Bossonova), but "Planet of Sound" is probably one of my favorite rock songs of all time. One thing I hadn't noticed from my high-school days was the amount of Biblical allusion in their lyrics, with darker themes of Old Testament narrative (like incest and rape) being parodied in various songs ("Nimrod's Son" comes to mind). But the lyrics aren't Marilyn Manson-ish tripe - it's an intelligent wrestling with absurdity that provokes more than it defiles. Much like their lyrics, their explosive vocals and careening guitars never dissipate into chaos or lose their melodic energy.
The live recording shows just how well-deserved their reputation for stellar stage presence really was, with many songs mirroring the tracks on the recorded portion of the compilation. The comparison helps to highlight the points of departure and improvisation ("Wave of Mutilation" is slower, for example). Even though a few songs sound somewhat "phoned in", with "Monkey Gone to Heaven" as an obvious example, there are a number of renditions that make you want to run around flapping your arms like a chicken - "Broken Face" and "Isla De Encanta" chug with all the power of a speeding train. Their incredible sensibilities for pop rock are on full display in "U-Mass", "Dig For Fire" and "Allison".
With so much obvious talent compressed together, it's no wonder that the sheer mass of such singularity would result in the Big Bang that threw the band in all different directions. I've gone and purchased a Breeder's album (Last Splash), which I've thoroughly enjoyed - but the contrast in Kim Deal's sweet, airy melodies and Frank Black's powerful barking is an indelible loss. Even the tracks in which she provides the only vocals, such as the live version of "Into the White" on the second CD (and "Bone Machine" on the first CD), where her voice washes over you in dreamy waves, it's the juxtaposition with Black's grounding, gravelly contribution elsewhere on the album that makes it like apples of gold in settings of silver.
There are some tracks I wish would have been included, of course - "Alec Eiffel", "Hey", "Is She Weird?" and "Letter to Memphis" stand out in their absence (for me, anyway). But in the end, this is the reason "Best of" albums are such a good idea - it makes me want to slowly begin buying back the albums I've since destroyed or given away.