Saturday, April 05, 2008

Book Review: Doolittle by Ben Sisario

Several weeks back the local alternative music radio station here in St. Louis treated listeners to a “way back weekend.” Instead of hearing those godawful songs that pass for alternative music these days, listeners of a certain age could act like it was the early 1990s all over again, with songs by the good (Nirvana), the bad (Stone Temple Pilots), and the fugly (Bush).

Perhaps not surprisingly, absent from these 48 hours of grunge-era goodies was anything by the Pixies. Despite the mass recognition, plaudits, and breathless write-ups the band finally received during its recent reunion tour, the Pixies are still in some ways familiar only to a certain type of music fan.

For that certain type of music fan (obsessive, opinionated, and stalker-like loyal... er, dedicated), Ben Sisario’s take on the Pixies’ classic album Doolittle is a welcome treat. It’s also one of the better entries in the sometimes erratic 33 1/3 book series from Continuum. In a little more than 100 pages, Sisario covers all the key areas of both the Pixies and the album, including a nice overview of the band’s history, how the songs took shape, the quiet-loud-quiet-loud approach that runs throughout the album, the critical and commercial responses (or non-responses in the United States, as the band was largely ignored) to the album, and the album’s overarching themes.

Any analysis of a song’s lyrics runs the risk of being an exercise in futility; the reviewer in many cases can only guess at what the writer’s intentions were, has limited knowledge of the writer’s life and cultural influences, and makes assumptions based on his or her own interpretations of the lyrics. Pixies singer, lyricist, and top-ten bald musician of all time Frank Black was interviewed for this book, which allows Sisario to avoid these pitfalls. Sisario actually cruised around Portland with Black in the musician’s Cadillac, talking about the Pixies music and even stopping at a local record store to buy a copy of Leonard Cohen’s I’m Your Man.

Besides making countless Pixie fans jealous, the end result of this approach is that Black provides many details about the album, especially the lyrics. For years Black was somewhat evasive and argumentative when questions about his lyrics were asked; he would often maintain that the words meant nothing and just sounded good strung together. Even if that does hold true in some cases on Doolittle (“Silver” comes to mind), Black provides tons of details into the album’s major topics and even into the context of certain lines.

Through Sisario’s musical joyride with Black, Doolittle’s themes of violence, death, and the horizontal tango, as well as the twisted and dark sense of humor that rests just below the surface, are examined and discussed. Black talks about how the album’s songs were influenced by Surrealism (“slicing up eyeballs” from “Debaser”), the Old Testament (“Dead” and “Gouge Away”), and crazy former roommates (“Crackity Jones”), among other things. Black is clearly sincere when discussing the album; he’s not blowing smoke or BS’ing about the songs in 1960s Bob Dylan fashion. Sisario’s book is a great glimpse into how Black assimilated these various influences and reflected them in the album’s lyrics.

The book does have some minor flaws. Sisario sometimes dives deep into what even the most obsessive Pixies fan might consider boring minutiae; things like the number of beats per song or the fact that a song is in 4/4 time are interesting but probably unnecessary in creating a better understanding of either the band or the album. And when Black offers only cursory input for some songs (“I Bleed," for example), Sisario tends to fill in the blanks with shaky conclusions.

Regardless of these shortcomings, Sisario’s book offers numerous insights and revelations into both the Pixies and Doolittle. Pixies’ fans won’t be disappointed.


say_andy said...

That's good to hear. I love the idea of the 33 1/3 series, but was largely unimpressed by the two I checked out (The Velvet Underground & Nico and Joy Division - Closer).

Which do you think have been the best of the series so far?

say_andy said...

Er... make that Unknown Pleasures, not Closer. Whoops.