To a certain extent, Doolittle – the Pixies’ most accessible (and best-selling) album – is all about tension. The tension of band trying to continue sounding raw and dirty while being pushed to adopt a more commercial tone. The tension of a band in transition from independent to major label. The tension between two vocalists and visual foci who had very different ideas about music. The tension inherent in the band’s unique-at-the-time loud-quiet-loud song arrangements. The tension between melody and abrasion, tunefulness and distortion, punk rock and surf rock, male and female…you get it.
The Pixies – singer/guitarist Black Francis (Charles Thompson, aka Frank Black), bassist/singer Kim Deal, guitarist Joey Santiago and drummer David Lovering – were the uber-college rock band of the ‘80s. Francis and Santiago met at college (UMass). They formed a band a couple of years later (circa 1986) in the quintessential college town of Boston, which, as you’d expect, is where they played most of their early gigs. Even their sound and style – especially on Doolittle – were tailor-made for the nascent “college rock” moniker and scene: not punk enough to be truly underground, and not commercial enough for mainstream radio.
Coming after the raw sonic blast of the Steve Albini-produced Surfer Rosa (my own personal favorite Pixies recording, natch, with its heavy but wide-ranging sound), Doolittle sounds positively clean cut. Chalk it up to either British producer Gil Norton (hired at the “suggestion” of the Pixies’ then-label chief, Ivo Watts-Russell), a quadrupled recording budget of $40,000, or both, but the “listenability” of Doolittle compared to the band’s earlier output is in no small part due to such material as “Here Comes Your Man,” “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (to date the only Pixies song to feature strings…though it’s Francis’ screamed “Then GOD is SEVEN/HEAVEN” line that gets me very time) and “La La Love You.” Even less overtly poppy numbers like “Gouge Away,” “Silver” and “Hey” suggest a much-toned down Pixies when compared to, say, “Something Against You” from their previous album.
Sonically, the Pixies were a greater whole than their individual parts would suggest. Lovering’s drums came to the fore on Surfer Rosa, thanks to Albini’s production, and they’re just as emphatic and integral on Doolittle. Deal’s thumping, melodic bass stands out and is central to better than half of the songs, quite a feat given that she’d only been playing the instrument for about three years when Doolittle was recorded. The twin guitar blast of Francis and Santiago kill as usual, though it’s Santiago’s metallic, brittle and unpredictable ”lead” guitar playing, particularly on “Dead” “Mr. Grieves” and “Debaser” that help make the Pixies’ music as unique as it remains today. Another piece of the Pixies puzzle is the vocal interplay between Francis (raving screaming eloquent maniac) and Deal (manic pixie dream girl and music geek fanboy crush), an element that, sadly, was practically shelved after the post-Doolittle rancor and infighting between Francis and Deal that crept up and stayed put until the band’s demise a few years later. Doolittle was Deal’s high watermark with the Pixies…and, in fact, the Pixies best.. Coincidence?
To bring the story all the way up to date, Doolittle was certified as a gold album status (500,000 units sold) by the RIAA in 1995. In 2003, amidst a horde of other post-punk/alternative rock reunion runs – by such indie luminaries as Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr, to name just two other Boston-area bands – the Pixies reunited in 2004 for a well-deserved payday…which they justifiably milked for a few years until the old wounds became too much to bear and it ended (again) in ’08. And most recently, the album was ranked number 226 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.