Twenty Dollars in Hand: Record Store Jitters, The Pixies and a Perfect Pair of Tits

Aug 15, 2012 by

 

According to my mother-in-law, I think I know everything.  I’m quick to form a strong opinion and generally know what I want before I go after it.  Unless I walk into a record store, then all bets are off.  There I’m more likely to wander around, flipping through the same records, walking out of the store in defeat, then walking back in as I suddenly remember something I forgot to look for, only to find it not there, which of course leads me to look through all the same records again, usually with the same result.

I don’t know what’s happened in my older age, but apparently its late onset ADHD.  Record stores do this great thing, it’s called alphabetical order.  If you start at A and end in Z, you’re going to see everything they have.  But if you’re me, you’ll start in A then suddenly remember you want to check out a Captain Beefheart album and skip the rest of the As and all of the Bs to jump to the Cs, maybe you find it, maybe you don’t, either way you’ll remember how much you want Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots on Vinyl and you’ll jump to the Fs, but before you can even begin to flip through the Fs you remember you want to see if there is any way in hell Earshot might have a copy of Happy Nightmare Baby by Opal, one of the most underappreciated lysergic garage bands to ever grace the college airwaves in the late 80s and early 90s, on your way to the Os you see a display for a compilation of Indonesian Hard, Psychedelic, Progressive Rock and Fusion from the early 70s and realize you really need it, only to get distracted by the prominently featured new release from the Archers of Loaf, which of course takes you back to the As.

 

 

That’s an almost verbatim recount of my trip to Earshot Records in Winston Salem.  Adding to the confusion was the fact I brought my 9 year old for his first record store experience.  I so wanted to give him the perfect introduction but, much like Cora’s birthday party, that wasn’t the case.  I did manage to explain the difference between CD and Vinyl.  He was pretty impressed with the size of the graphics on the albums.  He was also pretty astounded by how a turntable and grooved vinyl somehow produce music.  I generally like to explain things to him in as real terms as possible.  He’s a whole lot smarter than I am and can tell if something doesn’t sound right.  In this case, I’m not super up on the science of vinyl; for all I know there are fairies in the needle and pixies in the grooves of a record.  These two magical creatures meet and create the music that comes out of my speakers.  I think I explained it a little better than that, and he seemed to get the general idea of how it worked.  I’m thankful, because my constant spastic lurching through the store couldn’t have been all that great of an introduction.

Number one comment my son made about Earshot, “Ooooh, I like the way it smells in here.”  I loved that, because Earshot smells like a record store.  I don’t mean it smells like Comic Book guy’s BO either, I mean it smells like cardboard, and vinyl and records that have been places.  Out of the mouths of babes…

Somewhere in my fumbling I stumbled across one of my favorite albums of all time, Surfer Rosa by the Pixies.  I only ever owned this on cassette, I don’t know why it never made the transfer to CD, maybe I liked the tape hiss with the raw recordings, or maybe I was just stingy; for whatever reason it’s one of the few holdouts I’ve had in the digital age.  I immediately grabbed it and almost just as immediately felt a twinge of guilt for grabbing such a standard.  I wanted to be creative, pick something I’d never heard, go out on a limb like Wes and Matt did.  As you can imagine from my previous description, decision making wasn’t a strong point for me on this fateful Saturday, so even after finding Surfer Rosa I dragged Austin throughout the record store for two more rounds of perusing the bins.  I then bought the album and walked out into the glorious sunlight; only to instantly feel buyer’s remorse and walk back into the store not once, but twice, before finally deciding I’d done the right thing.  After all, this is quite possibly the best album cover of all time.

 

My vinyl collection is small, relegated to a few weird punk bands, a sweet yellow vinyl copy of the First Dinosaur album before they became Dinosaur Jr., Some Girls by the Stones, and Physical Graffiti by Zep.  I also recently acquired More Songs about Buildings and Food by The Talking Heads from Matt.  My turntable broke a while back and Matt was kind enough to give me one of his extras taking up valuable space is in his Wife’s house. I hate to admit this, but I had yet to set the thing up, primarily because Matt scared me with his harrowing tale of installing his device.

I had this piece to write, the time was upon me, it was now or never.  I considered downloading the album and pretending I listened to the actual record, but after my initial guilt at purchasing the damn thing in the first place, I knew that would never sit well with me.  I could write a whole other piece on setting up my Technic turntable.  In lieu of that, you can just imagine a lot of sweat, cursing, yelling and ruined needles and you’ll be spot on with what my experience was.

Ahhh, but what sweet bliss it was once that puppy was working.  There are a lot of audiophiles who will tell you what you need to look for in a stereo set up.  Everyone has their own opinion and they’re almost always different.  I’m not like that; I know exactly what I want.  I want it LOUD.  I want to feel it in the back of my knees, I want to make old ladies cry, I want to scare the neighbors and devirginize their daughters through the pure power of rock and roll.

Surfer Rosa is one of the best LOUD albums I’ve ever heard.  It’s crazy, creepy, scary, audacious, biblical, violent, apocalyptic and pure fucking rock and roll.  There are other bands that have played loud/quiet/hard/soft schizophrenic musical chairs, but few have accomplished it in the way the Pixies did, especially with this album.

The melding of melody, noise, biblical violence, incestuous sex and Spanish island imagery makes this album stand out as one to remember.  Just look at the track listing:

Bone Machine
Break my Body
Something Against You
Broken Face
Gigantic
River Euphrates
Where is My Mind
Cactus
Tony’s Theme
Oh My Golly
Vamos
I’m Amazed
Brick is Red

Cryptic and creepy, no?

You can read more about Black Francis (Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV) on the wiki, but even if you never do, you can get a pretty good sense of what influenced him just from listening to the album.  Back in the pre-internet dark days, we didn’t have Wikipedia, we just inferred things; what I inferred was Thompson had a dicey upbringing involving an (un)healthy dose of religion, a fair amount of beach time and a heaping helping of Spanish from a trip to an island in the Caribbean.

Go ahead; read the wiki, I wasn’t too far off.

You know those molecular chefs?  The ones who take a food in its pure form, then put it through a centrifuge, hit it with some liquid nitrogen then crumble it into a spoon and somehow it comes out tasting more like the pure ingredient than the ingredient on its own ever tasted?  That’s what Steve Albini did with Surfer Rosa; his production is raw, concise and crystal clear – it’s everything Pixies spun down to the core flavor – Yum!

The whole album is great, but below are some of my own personal highlights.

The album starts off with Bone Machine – a great example of a Pixies song – booming drums, slinky base, scathing guitar and Black Francis yelling psycho sexual lyrics as the music builds and threatens to careen out of control only to drop off into empty space and bass before cranking up again. Then just for a cherry whipped topping you get the vocal interplay of Deal and Francis, battling each other for lead over the chorus – you can call it harmonizing if you want, but I think it signifies anything but.

Albini has been criticized for being misogynistic and repressing female lyrics below the mix, especially with PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me (which in my opinion wouldn’t be nearly as good without the controversial production), but no evidence of that is here.  Albini likes tension, and I’m guessing that like any good producer he picked up on it, and instead of repressing it, brought it to the forefront.  Once the chorus starts on songs like Break My Body, Broken Face, River Euphrates, Tony’s Theme, and I’m Amazed it seems as if we’re all privy to an internal struggle for who should be on top (sexual reference intended to keep with the theme of the album).

Bone Machine>Break My Body build off of each other, increasing the tension and raising the level of aggression culminating in the all-out sonic assault of Something Against You.  Again Albini takes a standard Pixie component, the Black Francis Scream, and makes it more than its parts.  Francis has one of the better screams in the history of rock and roll screamers.  This isn’t some heavy metal wail, this is full force, throaty, sounds like he’s going to shred his vocal cords and vomit blood scream.  I love every minute of it.  Only Albini would think to filter it through a guitar amplifier and give it even more heft and distortion.  I get chills writing about it.

 

 

Broken Face keeps the ferocity of the opening three but increases the weird.  Pixies lyrics are multi layered and intentionally surreal, interpret them as you will, but it’s hard to come away with anything other than the obvious when listening to the following:

There was this boy who had two
Children with his sisters
They were his daughters
They were his favorite lovers

I got no lips, I got no tongue
Where there were eyes there’s only space
I got no lips, I got no tongue

I got a broken face, uh-hu, uh-hu
I got a broken face

Yeah…Like I said, creepy.

Kim Deal follows with Gigantic, her only song on the album.  Again, their lyrics can be obtuse, but it’s hard to see this for anything other than what it is – listen for yourself:

 

 

Side two starts off softer with Where is My Mind?  as if to give us a break from everything happening in the first half of the album.  Soft and pretty as it sounds, it’s still probably the creepiest song ever written about a dude snorkeling in the Caribbean.  It’s followed by Cactus one of the starker songs on the album; it’s also one of my favorites, mostly because of the following verse:

I miss your kissin’ and I miss your head
And the letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead
Run outside in the desert heat
Make your dress all wet and send it to me

I don’t know, call me a romantic…

I mentioned the Spanish influence earlier; it’s in full force with Oh My Golly and Vamos. Both of them are sung mostly in Black Francis’s heavily slanged up Puerto Rican Spanglish.  Oh My Golly is about sex with a surfer girl and Vamos seems to be a Summertime influenced rocker about going to the beach.  Both songs encompass two of my favorite things to do, or at least try to do, when I was in high school.

I’m sure you can imagine, as can my mother in law, I could go on all day about the Pixies, especially Surfer Rosa.  Maybe it’s growing up in the religious south, maybe it’s my education in Psychology, maybe it’s because I fucked my sister, I don’t know, but at some point you have to call it a day, which I’m almost ready to do.

There’s just one more thing…the album cover.

I’m a big fan of naked women in general, but this is truly a beautiful album cover.  Again, according to the wiki, Francis came up with the concept of the album cover while “writing songs in his father’s topless bar”.  I don’t know if that is true, but it’s a great story.  The imagery perfectly captures the religious oppression, sexual fantasy and overall general feeling that you’ve walked into the set of a surreal horror movie, perhaps one by Dario Argento.  Or maybe it’s just tits, either way, I dig it.
 

 

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1,703 Comments

  1. A great review! Kudos!

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