Wild Gifts

New X, Replacements, and Pixies anthologies tell the bittersweet tale of '80s underground rock

The Replacements' raucous up-tempo tunes, on the other hand, somehow sound scrawnier, the broken bluster smoothed over the years. Even so, "Left of the Dial" still rings with a crooked, melancholy bliss, and "Bastards of Young" is still a monster, its core of alienation a perfect reminder of the band's ill-fated lunge at the big time on Tim, its first major-label release. "God, what a mess, on the ladder of success," Westerberg sang with weary adrenaline. "You take a first step and miss the whole first rung."

Highlights amid the hodgepodge of outtakes and demos on the compilation's second disc include "Beer for Breakfast," a refreshingly pregrunge splotch of sound and attitude ("Hallafuckinlooyah, I'm a bum," Westerberg shouts with glee), and "'Til We're Nude," a convincing rocker that should never have been left off the band's second major-label disc, Pleased to Meet Me. Notable cover-song efforts range from goofiness ("Jungle Rock") to inspired goofiness ("Cruella DeVille") to hipper-than-thouness (the Only Ones' classic, "Another Girl, Another Planet," one of the most revered of cool-band cover songs).

Those gloriously half-assed renditions call attention to the biggest drawback on All for Nothing/Nothing for All. Most of the cuts on the anthology are taken from the Replacements' major-label period, which began in 1985 with the admittedly awesome Tim, and ended in 1991, when the band petered out, having become a glorified solo project for an increasingly sobered up and sentimental Westerberg.

Indeed, the pictures on the back of the double-CD's jewel box and its booklet indicate how far this "retrospective" reaches. Bob Stinson, the dress-wearing, hell-raising, slash-and-burn guitarist who was dumped between Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, is nowhere to be found in the photos. That's an unacceptable oversight. As is the absence of pre-major-label songs like "Unsatisfied," from 1984's Let It Be, and the phenomenal "Color Me Impressed" off Hootenanny, released in '83. Contractual problems no doubt blocked those and other songs from the band's Twin/Tone Records days from making the list, but the best Replacements look-back will include everything on All for Nothing/Nothing for All, to be sure, as well as the Replacements' wonderfully haphazard early years.

The Pixies possessed neither the catch-as-catch-can appeal of the Replacements nor the politicized importance of X. Not that the Pixies couldn't be engaging or, for that matter, take themselves too seriously. Indeed, the band often managed to be at once ingratiating and smug on the bulk of its considerable collection of work in the late '80s and early '90s. Lead vocalist/songwriter Black Francis (ne Charles Thompson) still comes off that way in his solo career as Frank Black.

From the git-go, the Pixies threatened to be too cool for the room. It was a Boston-based band with albums released on England's mysteriously prestigious 4AD Records, the ultrahip import label best known for sending the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and other inscrutable British acts across the pond. The Pixies and fellow Bostonians Throwing Muses were the label's first tries with U.S. acts, and the Pixies were certainly all-American, from their guitar-attacked songs to Thompson's roars and howls.

Death to the Pixies nicely covers the band's substantial collection of songs, including "Here Comes Your Man," a simple, undeniably catchy tune, and "Debaser," a kind of schematic of the classic Pixies song, with its solo intro from bassist Kim Deal, followed by a sharp hook courtesy of guitarist Joey Santiago, leading to the essential vocal tirade from Thompson. The song is capped by Deal's blase back-up vocals, which offer a cool counterpoint to Thompson's hysterics. Deal's vocal presence was always the Pixies' secret weapon, and it's no surprise that she went on to lead her later band, the Breeders, to record one of the strongest albums of recent years, 1994's Last Splash, a disc that now sounds like the best album the Pixies never made.

Still, the Pixies put out strong albums. And what made the music especially indispensable was accessibility. Here were songs that were experimental in tone and aloof in nature, but easily digested. The simple, at times opaque, approach was inventive and familiar with a clear hint of feistiness, which allowed the underground elite to embrace the Pixies even as frat houses blasted the band's songs.

But whereas X chronicled the onslaught of punk in expressionistic tones and the Replacements wrote songs of disheveled tenderness, the Pixies played touch and go with smugness. They'd use Dadaistic word play in lightly metaphoric odes to archaeology and space travel instead of writing about honest feelings among humans in the mist. "Digging for Fire" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" were topnotch songs, and the Pixies' po-mo pop smarts allow their material to sound more current than much of the Replacements' oeuvre and most of the X files. But that's only because the age of irony, a defining characteristic of the '80s and a crucial element of the Pixies' muse, still grips.

When it comes to emotional evocation, Thompson's affected screams now seem about as convincing as an evangelical's angst before the plate is passed. It's music that sounds best from far away--in more ways than one.

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