To achieve college radio success, a band must balance the accessible and the eccentric. Its music can't be too abrasive, but neither can it surrender its snob appeal for mainstream melodicism or conventional sentiments. A Boston band, the Pixies, is showing its peers how to walk that tightrope.
The quartet already has achieved something approaching mass-market status in England and may be poised for a similar breakthrough in America. "Bossanova" (4AD/Elektra), the Pixies' third full-length album (second on a major label), may not top last year's "Doolittle," but it is solid enough to sustain the band's momentum. ("Bossanova's" catchiest tracks, "Velouria," "Is She Weird" and "Dig for Fire," aren't serious rivals for its predecessor's "Monkey Gone to Heaven" or "Here Comes Your Man.")
The essentials of the Pixies' strategy are collage and control: The band may flail away as extravagantly as any hard-core punk band, but only for a moment before shifting to a lockstep funk-punk groove worthy of early Gang of Four or an incongruous snippet of surf music or a tuneful refrain sweet enough for Merseybeat. They're Apollonian pop artists, not Dionysian abstract expressionists, and their obscure references and oddball juxtapositions probably wouldn't mean as much if they were fully explained. The Pixies, which include bassist Kim Deal, who used to record under the name "Mrs. John Murphy," and guitarist-singer Charles Michael Kitridge Thompson, who still uses the name "Black Francis," are careful not to reveal too much about their identities, whether personal or musical.
The band's hipness quotient initially was enhanced by the fact that it signed to 4AD, a small, trendy, independent British label known for its sumptuous art direction, before the group got an American deal. The relationship is apt: Like 4AD, the Pixies are whizzes at packaging, dressing up their glitter-rock and surf-music borrowings (including a cover of the Surftones' "Celia Ann") in the latest deconstructionist togs. Black Francis's coy compositions are more sketches than songs, a collection of received riffs and tunes that, like hip-hop, has been put through the remote-control channel-switcher of contemporary consciousness. Such postmodern guile saves the Pixies the bother of making much sense, either intellectually or emotionally.
Francis's lyrics are safely cryptic, though in one interview he admitted that such songs as "The Happening" were inspired by a Los Angeles talk-radio show that devotes much of its air time to people with an active interest in UFOs. That sounds about right: Like the Pixies, UFOs are a suitably offbeat but utterly unthreatening topic, and they're abstractly interesting but fundamentally marginal.
The Breeders: 'Pod' Recorded in Edinburgh during a Pixies hiatus, "Pod" (4AD/Rough Trade) is the product of a pick-up "super group" featuring Kim Deal, Josephine Wiggs of the English quartet the Perfect Disaster, and Tanya Donnelly of the Throwing Muses, a New England quartet that was the first American band to sign to 4AD. As might be expected of a band that includes two bassists (Wiggs and Deal, though the latter plays guitar here), the emphasis is on rhythm-heavy, slow-grind art-funk-punk of tracks such as the opening "Glorious." Deal, who wrote or co-wrote most of these songs, emulates Black Francis's sense of dynamics, but her work seldom achieves the same sort of ecstatic release when it attempts to break free from the groove. The Breeders' version of the Beatles' "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," for example, ranges not from intense to mysterious, but merely from loud and harsh to soft and less harsh.
Still, Deal has learned some tricks from Francis. Such terse, edgy throbbers as "Hellbound" and "Opened" would have qualified for the earlier Pixies platters, and the swinging, trebly "Lime House" actually busts loose. At its best, though, "Pod" just barely achieves Pixiedom. Perhaps it would seem more compelling if it had been released in the midst of a drought, but since it arrived just a few months before "Bossanova," the album is likely to attract only the most fervent of Pixies partisans.
The Perfect Disaster: 'Up' It may not be as studiously postmodern or as stylishly outfitted as the Pixies' or Breeders' albums, but the Perfect Disaster's "Up" (Fire) is more appealing than either. A patently derivative slice of American-style art-punk (the principal reference points are the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers), "Up" may not add much to the genre, but it has a lot of fun trying.
From " '55," the "Road Runner" tribute that opens it, to "B52," the "Sister Ray" tribute that ends it, the album is a mixture of snaky guitar and bleating organ. (The key exception is an after-dinner suite, "Down (Here I Go)," "Down (Falling)" and "Down (Down)," which spotlights Wiggs's cello playing.) Singer-guitarist Phil Parfitt and lead guitarist Dan Cross write delightfully unself-conscious songs whose titles reveal their straightforward messages: "Shout," "It Doesn't Matter," "Hey Now," "Go Away." (The CD and cassette versions add two songs from a previous single, though not the band's latest 45, the deliriously chugging "Mood Elevators.")
The Disasters are far from in perfect control of their music; the long songs, especially "B52," get away from them. In these compulsively guarded times, though, a little mood-elevated disarray is a refreshing thing. "Up" is not a great album, but it does have a great spirit.