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Wave of Decomposition

The Pixies, Thurston Moore, and alternative icons in decline

A few weeks ago, a jazz critic named Ted Gioia wrote an article for the Daily Beast about how contemporary music criticism is terrible. This was the crux of his argument: “Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.”

It was hardly an outrageous (or uncommon) observation. As a professional dispenser of opinions about popular musical artists, I hear some variant of this complaint at least once a month. I sort of see where these people are coming from, but I never understand what exactly they’re asking for. Do they really want record reviews to be more pedantic and inscrutable? Is their ideal for pop criticism “less jokes, more guitar tablatures”? Do they also hassle film critics about talking too much about the actors and not enough about the gaffers?

What’s that? You are so bored that you can feel your skin literally decomposing and falling off your face? Sorry, it’s not my intention to commence a thinky bull session on the state of music writing. I bring this up only to suggest that sometimes the artist who made a record is a lot more relevant to a discussion about that record than the actual data contained on the record.

Case in point: Three weeks from today, a new album called Indie Cindy will be released. Indie Cindy has precisely one good song (a pretty blast of sunshine pop called “Greens and Blues”) and one bad song (the title track, which includes the already oft-quoted lyric “You put the cock in cocktail, man!”). The other 10 tracks are totally listenable and completely forgettable. Like the vast majority of records I encounter on a daily basis, Indie Cindy is neither the best album I’ve heard lately nor the worst. It’s just there. If at the end of 2014 I were to rank every record I heard in the preceding 12 months, I suspect Indie Cindy would end up somewhere in the middle. I’m not mad that it exists, but if it disappeared tomorrow I wouldn’t notice. At the risk of confusing uninformed readers with overly technical jargon, I would describe Indie Cindy as ehh with pronounced [Shoulder shrug], and a medium level of [Tilts hand back and forth to denote “so-so”].

If all that mattered were the music, I wouldn’t even bother writing about Indie Cindy. It is thoroughly pedestrian, exceptionally unexceptional, and spectacularly slight. But I am writing about Indie Cindy, and the reason is, it is the first full-length album by the Pixies since 1991’s Trompe le Monde. Like that, Indie Cindy suddenly seems important. If lifestyle reporting didn’t exist, Indie Cindy would have virtually no reason to exist, either.

Curiously, the baggage that justifies Indie Cindy’s existence also ensures it will be regarded as being much worse than it actually is. Judged solely as a self-released MOR rock record made by musicians in their late forties and early fifties who haven’t worked together in a creative fashion for nearly a quarter century, Indie Cindy is merely inoffensive. But as a Pixies record, it’s easily the worst entry in a celebrated discography. The more you love the other Pixies LPs, the less you’ll be able to tolerate Indie Cindy. Now, I suppose there will be contrarians who loudly insist that “Magdalena 318” sounds like an outtake from Surfer Rosa and that “Blue Eyed Hexe” doesn’t sound like an outtake from Condition Critical. But yahoos aside, the context of the Pixies’ career murders this album.

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Indie Cindy is composed of songs originally released on three EPs that came out in September, January, and March. The first, titled EP1, garnered the most attention ­— or, more accurately, Pitchfork’s review of EP1 garnered the most attention. Writer Jayson Greene1 gave the record a 1.0, which even people who don’t read Pitchfork can probably guess is a disastrously low score. To put this score in perspective, Pitchfork once gave Metallica’s St. Anger an 0.8, which means EP1 was only slightly better in the website’s estimation than the most unpleasant album by a major rock act released this century.2

“It’s hard not to take the EP’s failure personally,” Greene wrote. “If not for the once-faraway promise of the Pixies, and bands like the Pixies, I would almost certainly never have wandered down the foolish siren-song path of music-critic employment in the first place.”

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily classify EP1 (or Indie Cindy) as a failure, in the sense that Frank Black, Joey Santiago, and Dave Lovering don’t seem interested in “topping” themselves or engaging with the very Pixies mythos Greene alludes to. Indie Cindy is a casual proposition. There’s a looseness to it that can be charitably described as “fun” and less charitably described as “lazy.” I don’t know that the Pixies ever intended to make a “great” record. The execution suggests they were happy to simply get through the recording. So, in that way, Indie Cindy is a success ­— it’s inarguably a record that the Pixies completed.

But I get what Greene means when he talks about the “faraway promise of the Pixies.” I would guess that before the Pixies’ reunion in 2004 (and the subsequent run of endless tours in the decade since), the majority of the group’s fans had never seen them live. Much of the Pixies’ fan base got into the band after it broke up in 1993. Coming right after the Replacements and Hüsker Dü crested, and dissolving in the aftermath of Nevermind’s mainstream takeover, the Pixies were a bridge band between the ’80s indie and ’90s alt-rock scenes. Back then, “smart” rock fans tamped down the enthusiasm of their Alternative Nation–obsessed friends by pointing out (correctly, of course) that “alternative” was a meaningless term in the process of being commodified into obsolescence. Then those people would put a Pixies CD in the car stereo as their closing argument. This, went the unspoken implication, was the real shit.

The Pixies were essentially an imaginary band for most of the ’90s, an empty vessel that could house unwieldy concepts like “honesty” and “purity.” The 2006 documentary loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies opens with an epigraph by Kurt Cobain about how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a Pixies rip-off. This well-worn quote pointed countless grunge kids toward the Pixies as a supposedly 200-proof version of underground culture before MTV/corporations/Gavin Rossdale/etc. swooped in and diluted it.

Liking the Pixies was a way of saying “I’m a walking bullshit detector,” which was a righteous thing to be in the ’90s. Those of us who identified with alt-culture prided ourselves on being able to see through media obfuscation and show-business superficiality. It’s what drew us to The Simpsons and Mr. Show, Reality Bites and Quentin Tarantino, “Cut Your Hair” and Fiona Apple’s 1997 VMA speech. Pointing out B.S. was how like-minded individuals communed back then. And, in a way, it still is. Over time, “cynicism is the new optimism” became the predominant ideology of online media. Long before Gawker, talking like a Gawker headline was a way of life in the ’90s.

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In the midst of my flailing attempts to muster a single discernible emotion about Indie Cindy, I rewatched loudQUIETloud, which helped put the record in perspective. If you haven’t seen it, loudQUIETloud is essentially an ’80s college-rock version of A Mighty Wind, following the Pixies during their initial reunion shows in ’04. It’s a tragicomic farce rounded out by quirky characters ­— the quirkiest being Lovering, a committed magician, metal-detector enthusiast, and budding Christopher Guest character ­— and centered on a man (Black) and a woman (Kim Deal) trying to mend a fractured relationship for the good of a nostalgic revival.3 The Pixies as depicted in loudQUIETloud are far from mythic ­— it’s clear the band members (some more desperately than others) could really use the financial windfall the reunion tour will produce. The film isn’t really about “the Pixies” at all, but rather four human beings with spouses and children for whom playing the same old songs every night in cities across North America will make paying the rent a far easier proposition.

The first time I played Indie Cindy, I tried to figure out why the Pixies chose to make a new album now, a decade after they reunited. Because it’s not like they need to make a record. Anybody who pays good money to see the Pixies in 2014 probably isn’t going to be yelling for Indie Cindy deep cuts. But after revisiting loudQUIETloud, it made more sense. In 2004, Pixies fans paid to see the band they had imagined. Making a new album then would’ve been much tougher than now. But in 2014, Indie Cindy is a fair representation of how the public has come to see the Pixies, which is as an oldies act.

If the early Pixies records captured the (not particularly pleasant) intensity of being young and obsessed with your own neuroses, Indie Cindy is implicitly ambivalent about the concept of a rock band signifying anything meaningful. It is “adult” in the least alluring sense of the word. The violent dynamics of the past ­— the herky-jerky push-pull between bliss and psychosis that once defined the Pixies’ sound ­— have been flattened into a more consistent sigh of resignation. The Pixies now have the brute force of an elastic waistband tasked with containing a fleshy middle-aged belly.

Anthology Film Archives 40th Anniversary "Return To The Pleasure Dome"

There’s a kind of liberation in that, as there generally is once you accept the aging process. In a way, I’m glad for their sakes that Black, Santiago, and Lovering don’t feel obligated to live up to somebody else’s illusions about what the Pixies are still supposed to mean. It made me think about another Gen X icon who has disappointed people lately: Thurston Moore. Compared with Sonic Youth’s beleaguered Peter Pan figure, Black almost seems noble for channeling his aging rock-guy ennui into a mediocre album. Moore was widely excoriated in the press and social media last month in the wake of admitting to The Fly that he had cheated on his former wife and bandmate, Kim Gordon. Then Moore made some even more unfortunate comments in a subsequently deleted Facebook post. If Moore has a publicist, he needs to let that person bound and gag him for a while.

Rereading some of the think pieces about the Moore-Gordon separation that populated the Internet going back to 2011 (when the split was first announced), I was struck by how often “fairy tale” was used to describe the couple’s now broken relationship. Fairy tale! About a real-life marriage between two grown-up strangers! More than one writer lamented no longer believing in “true love.” This is a funny thing to say, because “true” love is actually the opposite of a fairy tale. It can be messy and fraught with bad decisions. It causes pain sometimes, even in the best marriages. And it will inevitably disappoint those who expect otherwise.

This is not a defense of Moore. I will never protect nor attack another person when it comes to matters of the heart, because I have a glass house of my own that demands constant vigilance. Still, I wonder: Was my generation not nearly as knowing or worldly as we once liked to believe? Did we ridicule our parents’ version of show-business phoniness while getting overly moony about our own entertainment heroes? Did we forget that these humans we turned into role models can falter ­— that they will falter, because that’s what humans do? Why weren’t we better prepared for this? Maybe that’s why I can’t bring myself to condemn the Pixies for the artistic sins of Indie Cindy, either, because my disappointment in what they’ve become has more to do with me than with them.

Filed Under: Music, The Pixies, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, alternative, Indie Cindy, steven hyden

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden