1990s nostalgia is everywhere these days. All college kids today (plus the past 10 years of graduates) are members of Generation Y and are reminiscing about the arts and entertainment of their respective childhoods. Perhaps the most notable musical trend of the ‘90s was the emergence of alternative rock as a mainstream force. The genre was an underground movement for nearly 10 years, but it was vibrant, especially in the U.S. R.E.M., Sonic Youth and The Replacements are just some of the great bands to start during this period.
But Seattle trio Nirvana, part of the alternative rock subgenre grunge, changed all that in late 1991 with the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The song and its accompanying album “Nevermind” are both regarded as all-time classics, not only because they are great, but because they marked a paradigm shift that instantly popularized their genre. However, it is also important to know how songs like “Teen Spirit” are directly influenced by another great alternative rock band. Here’s what singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain said in a Rolling Stone interview about the inspiration for the song: “I was trying to write the ultimate pop song. I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies.”
What Cobain ripped off was the devastating impact of an abrupt transition between a soft verse and a loud, often screamed chorus. The result was an incredibly raw sound that did not lose any pop sensibility. It was the Boston quartet the Pixies who perfected this simple yet effective technique and made it a core part of their sound. And while mainstream alternative rock — following the lead of Nirvana — was steeped in melancholy and self-loathing, this band was anything but.
Sure, the Pixies wrote about dark topics — incest, mutilation and voyeurism just on their debut album, “Surfer Rosa” — but they never did it without a sense of humor or enjoyment. Their mentality is summed up well at the end of “Oh My Golly!” where some studio banter initiated by producer Steve Albini has singer and rhythm guitarist Black Francis saying that he said, “You f—ing die!” to bassist Kim Deal, but that he was just joking and that “it didn’t have anything to do with anything.”
It is this intense yet nonchalant and winking approach that appears throughout “Surfer Rosa.” The quirks and unusual behavior also never become stale or distracting because of the sheer inventiveness of the Pixies’ songwriting and production. Most of the tracks use their trademark quiet-loud dynamic, but some are overtly punk, even surf rock, while others are heavy yet melodic guitar pop numbers spearheaded by riffs from lead guitarist Joey Santiago. Along with abrupt dynamics, Francis’ compositions (except “Gigantic,” co-written by Deal) have a compressed nature to them. Songs that are two minutes or less are frequent on the half-hour of “Surfer Rosa.” Even longer, slower songs such as “Where Is My Mind?” sound like several measures have been omitted from the end of the verses. The unusual elements don’t end there: studio banter, Spanish lyrics, audio tape manipulations, and various yelps and screeches from Francis all pop up.
Steve Albini, the legendary producer of “Surfer Rosa,” complemented the Pixies’ innate weirdness perfectly. His experimentation — for instance, Deal’s ghostly backup vocals on “Mind” were recorded in the studio bathroom — gave an innovative touch to these strange songs. Most important and influential is that Albini makes drummer David Lovering sound absolutely thunderous, a key feature of subsequent alternative rock. The quiet-loud dynamic is much more powerful in songs such as “Cactus,” where vocals and guitar are soft and distant in the first verse, then the sledgehammer drums immediately turn things up a notch.
Tensions would soon run high for the Pixies, who broke up amicably in 1993 before reuniting in 2004, between Francis and Deal over songwriting after they released their second classic, “Doolittle,” in 1989. Yet “Surfer Rosa” projects complete comfort and confidence from a band with endless creativity and vitality that just so happened to make a landmark rock album.