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Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
When the Pixies re-formed in 2004, expectations were high. As a live act, frontman Black Francis and crew — guitarist Joey Santiago, bassist Kim Deal and drummer David Lovering — more than delivered. But 10 years later, when the legendary band finally got around to releasing its comeback album, Indie Cindy, things didn't go so well. Largely lackluster and missing bassist-singer Kim Deal, who had just quit the group, Indie Cindy was a ding on the Pixies' otherwise spotless discography. Head Carrier, the band's seventh album (and second since getting back together), is another matter entirely. Red-blooded, full-throated, infectious and bold, it seems to have one unwavering purpose: Put the Pixies' members, as recording artists, back on top of their game.
It does. "You can't be too chill / You can't be too Zen," Black Francis sings in Head Carrier's grunge-like title track, and that sums up the album's unrepentant punch. "Classic Masher," with its sharp hooks and big riffs, instantly launches itself into the Pixies' pop-anthem canon — thanks in part to the sweet-yet-edgy backing vocals of current bassist Paz Lenchantin. Head Carrier is her first album with the group, and while her playing is solid, it's her voice that shines brightest. Her cool counterpoint to Black Francis' howling, sneering, crooning insanity is even more striking in "Bel Espirit," wherein she trades lines with the Pixies frontman in the verses before the chorus erupts into a full, glorious duet. Not that the rest of the band is coasting. "Oona" is just one of many showcases for Santiago's catchy, surf-inspired lead guitar, while "Talent" provides a punky vehicle for Lovering's playful, stomping drums.
There's a symmetry of sorts to Head Carrier. The album's opening and penultimate tracks, "Head Carrier" and "Plaster Of Paris," dwell on Saint Denis, Paris' first bishop — not that you'd know it on first listen, seeing as how the songs traffic in churning sludge and chiming pop, respectively. As with the best Pixies classics, layers of quirkiness, cultural references and oblique associations lurk within Head Carrier's immaculately crafted, muscularly executed rock. In the case of "All I Think About Now," there's even something else: poignancy. The song was co-written by Black Francis and Lenchantin as a tribute to Deal, who for so long played such a pivotal role in the group's sound and popularity.
The words reflect that. "Remember when we were happy? / If I'm late, can I thank you now?" Black Francis writes in "Head Carrier," sung by Lenchantin in her debut as a Pixies lead vocalist. It's a tear-jerking sentiment aimed directly at Deal. It's also unapologetic fan service to Pixies followers, in the same way the song's opening riff — an undisguised homage to the band's 1988 classic "Where Is My Mind?" — calls back to the Pixies' golden age. Like the album as a whole, "Head Carrier" is an inspired reaffirmation of all the spark, wit and weirdness, tempered by the occasional burst of emotional rawness, that made people fall in love with the Pixies in the first place.