AWESOME ALBUMS #4: Pixies – Bossanova (1990)

Who made it?: Gil Norton (Producer); 4AD (UK), Elektra (US).

Who’s on it?: Black Francis (Vocals, Guitar); Kim Deal (Bass, Vocals); David Lovering (Drums, Vocals); Joey Santiago (Lead Guitar).

Recorded at: Cherokee Studios, Los Angeles, 1989-1990.

Release date: 13th August 1990.

“Cecilia Ann” (2:05), “Rock Music” (1:52), “Velouria” (3:40), “Allison” (1:17), “Is She Weird” (3:01), “Ana” (2:09), “All Over the World” (5:27), “Dig for Fire” (3:02), “Down to the Well” (2:29), “The Happening” (4:19), “Blown Away” (2:20), “Hang Wire” (2:01), “Stormy Weather” (3:26), “Havalina” (2:33).

All songs written by Black Francis, except “Cecilia Ann”.

You probably made up your mind about the Pixies a long time ago. Their sound certainly divides opinion. It’s a price every unique band must pay, and while they were left behind in the alternative boom of the 90’s – splitting up before they had a chance to reap the rewards – their influence on the genre was sizeable. In their four album career, they never bowed to mainstream demands. There wasn’t a band like the Pixies before they appeared, and it could be argued that there hasn’t been a band like them since.

Many emulated the Pixies, but no one ever pulled off their loud-quiet shifts in dynamic as well. Which includes Nirvana. Kurt Cobain conceded that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a transparent attempt to copy them. He certainly adopted Black Francis’ penchant for unintelligible lyrics.

The band’s third studio record was something of a departure. Surfer Rosa (1988) and Doolittle (1989) had become instant underground classics, noted for their offbeat subject matter, experimental production and hard-hitting guitar work. Bossanova found them at a crossroads, musically and professionally. Tensions were soaring within the band. Bass guitarist and backing vocalist Kim Deal was becoming increasingly resentful over Francis’ creative dominance. Bossanova signalled the moment his control became absolute. He composed every track except the album’s opener, a cover of “Cecilia Ann” by The Surftones.

It’s the perfect intro to this album, which is a much more melodic affair. The abrasive nature of tracks like “Debaser” is largely absent here, and Bossanova was a conscious fusion of their existing style with surf and space rock elements. The cover and lyrical content only furthers the concept, with references to UFO’s and extraterrestrials. This is a very loopy record, in true Pixies fashion. From the get-go, it almost defies description…it’s like your stereo has intercepted a transmission from another planet.

The legendary Gil Norton was brought back to produce Bossanova, after he propelled Doolittle to cult success. He brings an expansive, otherworldly quality to this album that makes it a singular piece of work. Norton’s perfectionism and passion for reverb-heavy production is in full-force. When it was released in 1990, the album was largely dismissed, and Deal’s band The Breeders would receive more success that year. Such criticism was unwarranted: Bossanova is vintage Pixies, and the most unfairly overlooked release in their compact discography. It has aged remarkably well, if only because of the band’s wilful disregard for convention.

“Rock Music” is a boisterous number that lives up to its title. Joey Santiago’s powerful guitar shreds perfectly underscore Francis’ trademark wails, which are as incoherent as ever. To this day, I have no idea what the man is screaming (and there’s no lyrics for this track in the liner notes), but it doesn’t matter – the brute force of the music carries his vocal delivery. “Rock Music” feels like an out-take from Doolittle, which only makes its juxtaposition with “Velouria” all the more interesting. The latter is one of the Pixies’ finest, as well as a notable radio hit. You may remember the off-kilter music video, which is a shining example of the less-is-more approach, with the band running toward the camera in one long, uninterrupted take. The band hated doing promos, so it’s ironic that their disinterest would lead to one of the more famous videos of the 90’s. “Velouria” showcases the album’s sci-fi bent, particularly in the use of a theremin, which brings to mind 50’s B-movies with its distinctive, spaced-out sound. It might be a love song, but the lyrics are typically cryptic. Francis tempers his screaming and delivers one of the more poppier Pixies’ singles.

“Allison” and “Ana” continue Francis’ pre-occupation with naming songs after women, and are good examples of Bossanova‘s more lyrically minded tone. The former is a nod to jazz icon Mose Allison, and the track has an upbeat charge that leaves you tapping along. Changing gear yet again, “Is She Weird?” moves Bossanova into quintessential Pixies territory, with a crunching, offbeat guitar riff and highly suggestive words. I feel it would have made a better second single than Francis’ Talking Heads homage “Dig for Fire”, which has never left much of an impression on me; it never quite takes off in the way it should.

“The Happening” is supposedly about alien abduction, and it continues the space/surf rock concept. The way it mixes slow strumming with sudden power-chords is inspired and hypnotic. As a summation of Bossanova‘s intent, it could be the highlight. The album slowly winds down, leading to the glorious “Havalina”, which ends the record on a thoroughly chilled-out note. It is also a reminder of how great Francis and Deal’s voices are together; entwined in perfect harmony. Their subsequent estrangement is all the more unfortunate in retrospect. They may have hated each other, but it didn’t stop them from creating a record that is still enjoyed 21-years later.

Bossanova is a beautifully eclectic compendium that never loses its surreal appeal. I’m not sure why it’s rated so harshly by Pixies fans, and although it doesn’t reach the heights of Surfer Rosa and Doolittle, it is still a potent piece of work with a sense of scope that exceeds its brief 29-minutes. Free your mind and give it a spin.

Useless Trivia

  • Bossanova reached number 3 in the UK Albums Chart.
  • The “Velouria” video took only 23-seconds to film. You can see it at normal speed here. The track was also re-recorded by Francis for his solo collection Frank Black Francis (2004).
  • Gil Norton has produced records for the Foo Fighters (The Colour and the Shape), Maximo Park (Our Earthly Pleasures), Gomez (How We Operate), and Jimmy Eat World (Futures).
  • The band recorded a surf version of their popular hit “Wave of Mutilation”, which can be found on the B-Sides compilation.
  • Bossanova was followed by the band’s final album, Trompe Le Monde (1991). It continued their more melodic approach.

About Dave James

Editor-in-Chief @ Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator.
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