Trompe Le Monde 30th anniversary
Limited edition vinyl in marble green available here
Martin Gray takes a look back at the 1991 Pixies album ‘Trompe Le Monde’ on the 30th Anniversary of its original release.
It is hard to believe that the Pixies were instrumental in influencing the career of a certain Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and being the unwitting springboard for the latter’s global monster that was Nevermind. It is therefore even more astonishing to then realise that Pixies released their fifth and (then) final album for 4AD – Trompe Le Monde – on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind – 23rd September 1991.
At the time Pixies were still a hugely successful band in the UK, and Nirvana were still relatively unknown until MTV helped launch their breakthrough smash hit Smells Like Teen Spirit and then their career just went stratospheric – in the UK as well as the US.
The explosion of all things Grunge
We all know that Nevermind went on to be one of the biggest sellers of the year – and indeed the rest of the 90s decade – as it slowly but surely hung around for months and months, selling steadily until it reached multiple platinum status. Its influence and popularity coincided with several other bands from the Seattle scene to start enjoying huge success (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains to name but three), and of course the whole ‘grunge’ subculture – which was already happening in the mid-to-late 80s anyway due to labels like Sub Pop – became the next global music phenomenon that soon made a huge impression on the UK – which was at the time still mostly dominated by much of the post-acid house/dance/rave culture.
This was a welcome jolt in the arm relatively speaking for the guitar rock band format which was, around the mid-late 1980s, in danger of becoming stale and stagnant. The likes of Chris Cornell’s Soundgarden for example were also openly, but faithfully, indebted to the ‘sturm and drang’ of classic British metal bands like Black Sabbath. However, despite the huge enduring success of all these bands, none of them found much favour being labelled as ‘grunge’ acts, a label which presumably, like so many others, had its origins in the music press at the time who were always eager to find a new word or label with which to conveniently pigeonhole the newest slew of ‘happening’ rock bands.
Defiantly in their own orbit
Pixies on the other hand, never once kowtowed to any of these trivialities, nor did they ever purport to fit in with any genre, or any label. They were truly a unique proposition, even when they debuted with Come On Pilgrim in 1987, some music writers were at a loss to explain their sound or their approach. It was genuinely like nothing else at the time, which was why they were such a welcome breath of fresh air.
At the time, they arrived in the UK on the back of a co-headlining tour with fellow Bostonians – and 4AD labelmates – Throwing Muses, another defiantly maverick band that eschewed convention, but it was very soon apparent that Pixies had the sheer advantage through their sound and their popularity with the audiences to steal an early march on their fellow travellers and outstrip them in record sales and adulation within the space of a year.
Despite making their mark and setting their stall early with the brilliantly visceral Steve Albini-engineered Surfer Rosa album of 1988, it was their breakthrough 1989 album Doolittle which was the first of three top 10 albums in the space of three years. It remains their most popular and coveted album to this day.
Pilgrim Rosa Little Nova
The initial career of the Pixies was short and intense. An album a year, 1987 to 1991, would of course be quite a demanding schedule to adhere to even for these relative newcomers so to speak. This also meant that the band had the usual internal frictions which would, inevitably, tear them apart and cause their first break up in early 1993.
Following up the huge Doolittle was not an easy task, and it was clear that Black Francis aka Charles Thompson aka Frank Black was starting to feel the pressure to come up with ‘son of Doolittle’. This may well have put a strain on relations with the other main focal point of the band, bassist Kim Deal, who at least had singing and performance credits on the previous two albums. Not so on their 1990 successor, Bossanova however. In fact it was drummer Dave Lovering who once again had a solo spot on one of the album tracks, and Kim herself was relegated to a b-side cameo on a cover of Neil Young’s I’ve Been Waiting For You which came out on the Velouria single.
‘Bossanova’ was not as rapturously received as Doolittle however. Songs mostly about space, UFOs and other fantasy obsessions (Charles was a huge sci-fi nut anyway) coupled with less abrasive and more radio-friendly tunes meant that the album charted high but could not sustain its sales for as long as its predecessor did. The only truly visceral moment on the album was track two – a gleefully moronic rampage with raging guitars and near-indecipherable screamed lyrics, going under the aptly and self-deprecating title of Rock Music. By the time the strains of the final closing Havalina (written about a pig, according to Charles!) ebbed out of view, there was that nagging sense of anti-climax about the whole venture.
Press build up and leading single
The imminent release of Trompe Le Monde was first trailed in late summer 1991 with – in some cases – a near full-page news articles in some of the weekly UK music papers. Melody Maker, for example, dedicated almost two-thirds of page 3 to details of the new album and the tracks featured. Interestingly, in this article, mention was made about the fact that the album was going to be ‘much harder and aggressive’ even touching on ‘heavy metal’ and it was also going to feature around ’17 tracks’ one of which was a 10 minute surf odyssey*.
*Intriguing to note that this long instrumental track was omitted from the final album running order but did eventually show up on Frank Black’s first solo single in 1993 (a cover of Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds outtake ‘Hang Onto Your Ego’) and titled simply as ‘Surf Epic’.
The first single Planet Of Sound, which pre-empted the album’s arrival – albeit by a comparatively lengthy four months in late May 1991 – was indeed a much welcome return to uncompromising abrasiveness.
It was backed with two curiosities: Theme From Narc (an instrumental based on the violent computer game) and a cover of the Yardbirds’ Evil Hearted You, sung in Spanish.
Trompe Le Monde featured some garish album artwork which may or may not offer an appropriate visual insight into the music contained within. A series of sheeps’ or cows’ eyeballs (it isn’t made clear exactly which) embedded in a sea of salt, and a new bold logo replete with bright green and red colours on the reverse.
Clearly somewhat removed from the cute, if over-fussy, sci-fi graphics of their previous album then.
A Relentless Tour de Force
The first thing you hear when you drop the needle onto side 1 track 1 is an opening peal of flanged electric guitar arpeggios from Joey Santiago. This statement of intent heralds the title track Trompe Le Monde and within seconds you’re in familiar Pixies territory – its high tempo and urgent rhythm propelled by David Lovering’s frantic and inspired drumming.
In fact Side One is absolutely astonishing in its sheer relentless, punishing, pummelling consistency. It never lets up once. And there are eight tracks that weigh in around 2 to 2.5 minutes each on average. It also remarkable in how uniform the attack and controlled aggression is throughout these tracks. The opening salvo? There isn’t one as such. Whilst on their previous albums there was always an ‘opening salvo’ of two or three absolute drop dead killers (c.f: Surfer Rosa’s Bone Machine right through to track 4 Broken Face; Doolittle’s Debaser to Wave Of Mutilation; and even Bossanova’s deadly opening couplet of Cecilia Ann and Rock Music) on this album all eight tracks are presented as one huge slab of exhilarating noise. It is THAT fucking awesome, and you’d better believe it!
Joey Santiago is absolutely fucking possessed on this album – his guitar playing is positively satanic! It’s like he almost senses that this is the last Pixies hurrah for a long while and he is allowed to let himself completely loose on gleefully bludgeoning the absolute living daylights out of his instrument, with Charles’s blessing…. so let’s go out all guns fucking blazing why don’t we? Hell, not even their decent cover of Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On (track 5, side 1) falters by comparison either – it’s pretty damned hard hitting. It eschews the gloriously sleazy electro-garage-rock throb of the original and just goes all out for the jugular!
So let’s just take this all in for a moment: Trompe Le Monde (propulsive, thrilling, accelerating to a sustained final guitar wail), Planet Of Sound (sludgy punk metal – corrosively distorted vocals and screams and sci-fi whooshes), Alec Eiffel (super fast and catchy sing-along garage noise-pop), The Sad Punk (a ferocious ear-shredding, eyeball-melting slab of volcanic guitar and feedback apocalypse), Head On (belligerent power punk in excelsis), U-Mass (monolithic stampeding rocker built around a nagging and insistent guitar riff), Palace Of The Brine (ever-so slightly less intense but still cranks up the volume), Letter To Memphis (Joey’s colossal guitar motifs sound positively Jurassic here in scale and volume!).
That is side one for you: and there are no gaps between the tracks either – it’s one punch to the gut after another in quick succession. In fact Palace Of The Brine [which shockingly is probably the first track where you can actually hear Kim Deal making an appearance!] and Letter To Memphis are so cleverly sequenced they sound like one song: the transition between one to the other is so flawless that it reminds me of how, on XTC’s 1986 masterpiece Skylarking, the first two tracks Summer’s Cauldron and Grass do exactly the same thing: a perfect segue.
The second half gets stranger
Now onto Side Two – where things get weirder still. Really. And here I will give you a good reason why I now firmly believe that Trompe Le Monde is arguably an even greater album than Doolittle.
If side one is a consistently thrilling slap in the face filled with the sheer aural bliss of noisy aggressive guitars and full-on punk/metal ferocity, then this second half is a complete volte face in its utter strangeness.
Where Bossanova failed in its attempt to go all sci-fi and be a departure from ‘Doolittle’ was the fact that some of the tunes were somewhat weak. The worst offenders on that one were the second side’s unremarkable sequence of Dig For Fire, Down To The Well, Hang Wire and Stormy Weather. The last one in particular was especially aimless in its tedious repetition of a one-line lyric featuring the title to ever diminishing returns. It just came across as totally uninspired.
Not so on Trompe Le Monde, however. Side two bears no resemblance to side one whatsoever. This could be a different record entirely now. The opener Bird Dream Of The Olympus Mons starts with an organ and slowly picks its way along with a more sedate Charles vocal….but as it progresses it’s like the sun bursts halfway through from a bank of cloud and the song shifts into a higher state of euphoria. It could have been a killer single, but sadly wasn’t.
The next track Space (I Believe In) is the weirdest thing on the album by a country mile, possibly the strangest Pixies album track ever. It continues on the themes that were explored in Bossanova (to less successful effect) but then somehow contrives to throw in a complete non-sequitur of a lyric namechecking the guest musician who plays tablas on this track, culminating in a repeated refrain where Charles shouts: ‘Jefrey, with ONE F! Jef-rey!’, apropos of nothing. It is brilliantly bonkers. It could even showcase the strange Captain Beefheart influence that lurks beneath the undercarriage – quite apt given that former Beefheart acolyte Eric Drew Feldman is the principal guest musician who plays on this album and he would of course be a key collaborator with Charles in his subsequent Frank Black solo material.
The next three tracks ‘Subbacultcha (an old number which featured on their 1987 Purple Tape dusted down finally for this album), Distance Equals Rate Times Time, and Lovely Day are equally intriguing but sufficently different from one another to suggest that side one’s scorched earth approach has been subdued in favour of a higher strangeness quotient: Joey’s guitar playing on these is slightly less anguished and coruscating here.
The penultimate track Motorway To Roswell – one of the finest ever Pixies songs that doesn’t go all ballistic and high-octane frenzied apeshit with Spanish lyrics about incest and rape – is a tour de force in so many ways. Absolutely stunning in its execution and arrangement. This has to be one of the greatest ‘love’ songs to Area 51 ever written. As it builds to its extended climax we’re being swept up into its beautiful vortex before being left to spiral back down to earth as the fading strains of the closing piano ring themselves out…..
Only for the final track The Navajo Know to confuse you further as to who you have just been listening to in the last 20 minutes or so. Almost vying with Space as the oddest and most otherworldly track on here. It’s all windswept atmospherics and almost weird tumbleweed textures. It has the ultimate paradox of sounding quintessentially Pixies whilst sounding nothing like the Pixies, and you’re left scratching your head in bafflement at what you have just witnessed. The strangest end to the strangest and greatest Pixies album of them all.
Where is Kim?
It’s obvious that this album is pretty much exclusively a [future] Frank Black album in theme and lyrical content, but Kim Deal’s presence as a backing vocalist on this recording has been pretty much limited to fleeting, almost spectral, appearances. She IS there, noticeable on just two tracks on side one (Palace of The Brine and possibly Alec Eiffel), but she is, thankfully, somewhat more prominent on the second side, her vocals can be clearly heard on Space, Subbacultcha, Distance, Lovely Day and The Navajo Know – effectively shadowing and countering those of Charles, but still very much lower in the mix than even previous albums. Even then you get the distinct impression that she has been sidelined, which obviously fuelled further the conflicts that were already occurring within the band democracy.
Leave them wanting more.
I would wager that Trompe Le Monde was unfairly under-appreciated in its day. I certainly took to it straight away on the first couple of listens shortly after I bought it on initial release, and it was at that point I soon decided that, after Surfer Rosa, it was my favourite Pixies album…pushing Doolittle into third place.
How ironic then that in the greater scheme of things, despite entering the chart at number 7 (Primal Scream’s Screamadelica went in one place below at #8, whilst my other new favourite band at the time, Saint Etienne, debuted with their Foxbase Alpha at #34) it sold nowhere near as many thousands – let alone millions – as the album which it shared its release date with whose iconic singer openly confessed to cribbing from the Pixies to come up with those radio-friendly unit shifters.
Less than 18 months later, the Pixies were no more, Charles famously breaking up the band by a fax message sent to his colleagues. For this first incarnation at the very least, Trompe Le Monde remains as essential and vital a part of their catalogue as their more celebrated 1989 album….and if you haven’t been playing this album as much for that or whatever other reason, then it is a good idea to whack it back on the turntable again and marvel at how utterly magnificent, colossal and seismic the whole thing sounds even today.
This album still rocks like a bastard 30 years later. Time has not diminished its visceral power and brilliance.
‘Fool The World’? More like light the blue touch paper…. and set it well and truly ablaze!!
Words by Martin Gray. Check out his profile here.