The Pixies’s second post-reunion, post-Kim Deal album, Head Carrier, exudes barely an echo of the experimentation and hooky abrasiveness that characterized the band’s original four albums. Instead, it consists mainly of entirely competent, if predictable, rock music made by seasoned but complacent-sounding rockers. Thus, enjoying Head Carrier is mostly a matter of managing expectations.
The group’s current incarnation runs into trouble on Head Carrier when they seem to be deliberately trying to recapture the band’s rebellious, mercurial early days. “Baal’s Back” certainly isn’t the first Pixies song to feature deliberately jarring, exaggerated vocals, but Frank Black’s shrieking, possibly parodic approximation of Brian Johnson is grotesque, while “Um Chagga Lagga” is a detuned, all-attitude-no-melody boogie that was for some reason released as the album’s lead single.
More unpleasant than these failed experiments, however, is the cloying “All I Think About Now,” a blatant self-rip-off that might as well be titled “Where Is My Mind 2: Still Haven’t Found It.” Nearly as off-putting as the too-familiar chord progression and lead guitar are Black’s lyrics, billed as “a thank-you letter” to Kim Deal. Her reasons for leaving the Pixies are as yet undisclosed, but they must have been serious enough to not deserve to be whitewashed by conveniently pat sentiments like “I remember we were happy/That’s all I think about now/If you have any doubt/I want to thank you anyhow.”
When not vainly trying to live up to their legacy and instead embracing middle-age, the Pixies end up doing a much better job of not tainting said legacy. Head Carrier’s best moments are straightforward, midtempo, guitar-based alt-rock, as winningly melodic and tightly performed as they are ultimately formulaic. A basic three-minute pop rocker like “Classic Masher” could have been written by any of the Pixies’s innumerable, less imaginative acolytes, but just because it lacks a sense of danger or experimentation doesn’t make it any less likeably hummable. It also helps that Joey Santiago’s guitar leads are as crisp and distinctive as ever, and that Lenchantin, though her bass playing is mostly buried far too low in the mix, fills in admirably as a vocalist, sufficiently approximating Deal’s cooing backup style and charmingly duetting with Black on the “Letter to Memphis”-esque “Bel Espirit.”
Best of all, Black even stumbles upon a Doolittle-worthy hook or two. “Might As Well Be Gone” recalls the melodic warmth and acoustic/electric dynamics of classics like “Here Comes Your Man” without explicitly evoking them. And the chunky power popper “Tenement Song,” with its effortless “Hey, man” hook—a worthy, deliberate or not, tribute to David Bowie and “Suffragette City”—is as purely catchy as anything Black wrote during the Pixies’s original run.