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The Reunited Pixies, Still Defying Analysis

By Sean Daly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page C01

When they were at their cranky, calamitous best, the Pixies -- the band that inspired Nirvana's Kurt Cobain to commence the grunge revolution -- sounded broken, fractured, doomed. Born in Boston in 1986, splintered by '92, the ill-fated but influential quartet slammed out warring scraps of noise as if they knew their days were numbered: three guys and a girl doing their own thing -- rock, punk, surf, shrieking -- and then suddenly, if briefly, playing nice for a shimmering melody or a shout-along chorus. They were a mess, but a mess like no one had ever heard before, and the group was just the antidote for kids sick of the mindless thunder of hirsute '80s music.

All these years later, the Pixies, I'm pleased to report, still sound in dire need of a shrink.

Pixies frontman Black Francis and bassist Kim Deal belt out "Winterlong." (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

At a hot, humid Constitution Hall on Tuesday, the recently reunited band, embarking on the most unlikely yet most buzzed-about world tour of the year, played the first of two sold-out shows. For 90 minutes, they were surly then sweet, chummy then distant, each of their 30-some songs playing out like a puzzle with pieces missing. The tour is called "The Pixies Sellout" -- a cheeky admission that their indie ethic has given way to the cash-hungry ways that keep the Eddie Moneys of the world working the boards -- but fat wallets and all, the Pixies can still make first-class mayhem.

On their four albums, particularly the one-two wallop of 1988's "Surfer Rosa" and 1989's "Doolittle," singer Black Francis, bassist Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering seemed to be bouncing off the studio walls -- the aural equivalent of a hotel-room trashing -- but actually, then as now, they vent their oddball assault standing still, save for a quick cigarette or a wipe of sweat.

No matter: Their fans have always done the moving for them, and Tuesday night a bustling blend of college students and aging hipsters danced in the aisles and unleashed myriad standing ovations.

The most intriguing aspect of the Pixies remains the curious relationship between dueling talents Francis and Deal, a push-me, pull-you battle for creative power that was a major reason for Francis's breaking up the band . . . via fax. (Ouch.) The pudgy bald frontman -- who would later embark on a solo career as Frank Black (real name: Charles Thompson) -- writes and sings almost all of the songs. Deal, who post-Pixies formed the popular '90s band the Breeders, is once again mainly relegated to thumping out ominous bass lines that would fit in just fine on a Judas Priest record. During stretches of the show, she played with her back to the boys.

That said, Tuesday night's best moments were when Francis, appropriately dressed all in black, and Deal, clad like a soccer mom in slacks and blue sweater, sang together, his madman howl accented by her little-girl-lost coo. The Pixies' biggest hit, the early-Beatlesque "Here Comes Your Man" -- which might be about a hobo, but who the heck knows with the ever-cryptic Francis -- prompted the night's loudest sing-along, especially when Deal chirped "So long, so long" and Francis countered with "You'll never wait so long!"

Kurt Cobain once said that his original goal was simply to write a good Pixies song, and that makes sense. From "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on down, the Nirvana songbook is rife with the Pixies' penchant for soft-then-loud arrangements, jarring tempo changes to keep the listener off balance. The Pixies took their trademark one step further Tuesday. Their set started with slow (well, slower) stuff -- Deal opened with a sparse, creepy reading of David Lynch's "In Heaven (The Lady in the Radiator Song)"; Black followed with an acoustic-based cover of Neil Young's "Winterlong" -- and grew increasingly ferocious once they started tackling their own material ("The Holiday Song," "Bone Machine," "No. 13 Baby"). By the time Francis, a balladeer in a punk's body, got to the apocalyptic countdown of "Monkey Gone to Heaven" -- "If man is 5, then the devil is 6" -- drummer Lovering was sleek with sweat.

Bald and also dressed in black, Santiago -- who looks like about half of the large-and-in-charge Francis -- is a master of the Duane Eddy switchblade riff, and his guitar cut through the scrum of such aggressive (or is it passive-aggressive?) songs as "Tame," "Subbacultcha" and "Crackity Jones." In a sublimely silly moment straight out of the Slash playbook, Santiago unveiled some guitar-hero trickery, playing via the effects pedal and making sure everyone went home with a complimentary gift of tinnitus.

In a nice attempt at fixing the past, however, it wasn't Santiago or Francis who took star turns during the encore. Instead, Deal, with all the chipper spunk of a grade-schooler, delivered her sole songwriting contribution to "Surfer Rosa" -- the cleverly catchy interracial love song "Gigantic."

Let's hope Francis keeps his fax machine unplugged.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company