Pixies: Doolittle - Album Of The Week Club review

One of the albums that altered the course of rock music as we know it, how will the Pixies' Doolittle stand up to the Album Of The Week Club scrutineers?

Pixies - Doolittle cover art
(Image: © 4AD)

Why you can trust Louder Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.

Pixies - Doolittle

Pixies - Doolittle cover art

(Image credit: 4AD)

Debaser
Tame
Wave of Mutilation
I Bleed
Here Comes Your Man
Dead
Monkey Gone to Heaven
Mr. Grieves
Crackity Jones
La La Love You
No. 13 Baby
There Goes My Gun
Hey
Silver
Gouge Away

Pixies screamer-in-chief Black Francis once recalled lying on the living room floor of guitarist Joey Santiago while the Doolittle demo played, sensing that his band were about to cause a tectonic shift. “I remember going, ‘Wow, we really did something special’. And we hadn’t even made the record yet.”

His instinct was on the money. The received wisdom, as trotted out by revisionists, is that Nirvana fired the starting pistol with 1991’s Nevermind, mobilising the alt.rock hordes to pour over the battlements and slit the throat of hair metal. In truth, Pixies got there two years earlier – before Bleach, even – with a second album that combined bristling fury with the hooks to take it overground.

Leftfield hit singles like Monkey Gone To Heaven and Here Comes Your Man were a razor across the eyeball of the rock scene, establishing that nowhere-town misfits could hijack the bloated gloss of MTV.

But perhaps Doolittle’s defining contribution was the schizophrenic quiet/loud gearshift that would soon be common currency in the 90s rock soundscape. “Pure dynamics,” reflected David Bowie of those sonic sucker punches. “Very obvious now, but not obvious at the time. A dynamic of keeping the verse extremely quiet and then erupting into a blaze of noise.”

Even Kurt Cobain would openly admit that Smells Like Teen Spirit was his attempt to “basically rip off the Pixies”: a tip of the hat that Francis was happy to accept in 2013. “If Kurt Cobain ’fessed up to it, then fuck it, I’ll agree with it – you ripped us off…!”

Alt

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

Join the group now (opens in new tab).

Alt

Other albums released in April 1989

  • Beneath the Remains - Sepultura
  • Sonic Temple - The Cult
  • ...Twice Shy - Great White
  • Sea Hags - Sea Hags
  • Buzz Factory - Screaming Trees
  • Blue Blood - X Japan
  • Full Moon Fever - Tom Petty
  • Headless Cross - Black Sabbath
  • Blue Murder - Blue Murder
  • Best Wishes - Cro-Mags
  • Repeat Offender - Richard Marx
  • Mr. Music Head - Adrian Belew
  • 1,000 Hours - Green Day
  • The Black Swan - The Triffids
  • The Headless Children - W.A.S.P.
  • Slippery When Ill - The Vandals

Alt

What they said...

"You could tell from the tracklisting that their notion of a lunge for mainstream acceptance didn’t involve toning down Francis’s obsession with violence: Gouge Away, Wave of Mutilation, I Bleed. The album lasted approximately 20 seconds before confronting you with a reference to Luis Buñuel; Dead, meanwhile, offered a retelling of the saga of David and Bathsheba set to a one-note riff." (The Guardian (opens in new tab))

"The Pixies' arty, noisy weirdness mix with just enough hooks to produce gleefully demented singles like Debaser, – inspired by Bunuel's classic surrealist short Un Chien Andalou – and Wave of Mutilation, their surfy ode to driving a car into the sea. Though Doolittle's sound is cleaner and smoother than the Pixies' earlier albums, there are still plenty of weird, abrasive vignettes: the blankly psychotic There Goes My Gun, Crackity Jones, a song about a crazy roommate Francis had in Puerto Rico, and the nihilistic finale Gouge Away. (AllMusic (opens in new tab))

"The emphasis on more textured production has in no way taken away from the band’s intensity. Francis is at all times in command of the album, quietly stringing us along before turning on us and screaming for attention. It’s about time everyone started taking notice." (Rolling Stone (opens in new tab))

Alt

What you said...

Gary Claydon: By the late 80s I was becoming a little bit jaded when it came to music. Having been properly exposed to rock music for the first time via Led Zep around my 11th birthday, I'd spent the 70s and early 80s not so much listening as virtually absorbing as much and as varied material as possible. Perhaps, then, it was sheer overload, metal fatigue even. In a decade where, increasingly, image was as important as talent, the heavier end of the rock spectrum had descended almost into self-parody. There were the odd highlights, of course, there always are but it seemed to me that they were becoming fewer and farther between.

Looking for something to titillate a jaded palette, I found it, somewhat unexpectedly, in U.S. underground Alt.Rock. This was a scene that was, at the time, 'having a moment' as they say. Bands such as Husker Du, Sonic Youth and Fugazi piqued my interest and part of this scene were The Pixies.

Part of it, yet, somehow, apart from it. For starters, they were difficult to categorise, which is always a plus in my book. They couldn't easily be slotted into a micro-section of a branch of a sub-genre of a genre that some smart Alec had dreamed up. They made a glorious racket, full of contrasts and contradictions. There was the oft-cited loud/quiet/loud dynamic. The vocalist often sounded like a non-vocalist, mixing screams and shouts with whispered, almost spoken passages, occasionally switching into Spanish for no apparent reason. 

There was the wonderful juxtaposition with the backing vocals of Mrs.John Murphy - at times sugar-sweet, at others flatly deadpan. Add to that some pretty strange subject matter, played with hooky, breakneck aggression and it all made for an intoxicating mixture. Plus, they looked fuck-all like rock stars. So far, so weird. But that was OK, sometimes it pays to embrace the strange.

Pixies found a home with the 4AD label, a perfect fit. After the brilliance of Come On Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa they took the surprising step of ditching the latter's producer, Steve Albini, when it came time to record their second long player, engaging the services of Gil Norton instead. The first fruit of this collaboration was, of course, the magnificent Doolittle.

Whether or not you think Doolittle is the band's best album, there is no denying it is their most accessible. Much of this is down to the production. Whereas Albini had fostered a more aggressive sound largely by pushing David Lovering's drums forward in the mix, Norton highlighted the vocals more. While not sacrificing any edginess, this approach, coupled with some throttled-back song writing, resulted in a more even, more laid back feel.

All the aforementioned contrasting elements are here though. Black Francis's caterwauling complemented nicely by Kim Deal's backing vocals and solidly underpinned by her bass and Lovering's drums with Joey Santiago's guitar riding over and around it all.

Doolittle is bookended by violence, mainly being perpetrated on eyeballs, from the Bunuel-inspired surrealist slicing in Debaser to some Old Testament gouging, Samson and Delilah style, in closer Gouge Away. In between, subjects tackled include more Biblical violence courtesy of David and Bathsheba in Dead, mental illness (Crackity Jones), suicide (Wave of Mutilation) as well as environmental issues, more violence, death and destruction. 

Oh and fucking. Don't forget the fucking (Tame, Hey). It was Steve Albini who said that Pixies were so obviously a band who were writing songs about fucking. The overtly poppy 'hit' single, Here Comes Your Man complete with jaunty surf-guitar, hides a lyric that tells the dark tale of a bunch of hobos riding out the quiet period before an earthquake which leads to their demise, another example of the many contrasting elements which is part of Pixies make-up. Drummer Lovering steps up to the mike for the throwaway, tongue-in-cheek La La Love You and takes a turn on bass on the psycho-cowboy-maybe-drug-related Silver with Kim Deal playing slide guitar on the only song she is credited with on the album.

My favourite track on Doolittle, though, is one that many people skip past or describe as filler, while also being the longest track here - at 3:52 positively prog-like in duration by Pixies standards. No.13 Baby is the story of Black Francis spying on and lusting after his Latina neighbour as she digs a firepit for a hog roast while topless. Not your usual boy-meets-girl romantic song, I think you'll agree. 

As well as being adept at screaming and shouting, Francis also does a decent leer, employed to good effect here ( there are times when he sounds disturbingly like he might be some kind of serial killer!). His vocals end with his final intonations of "I'm in a state" (we hear ya Frankie baby) giving way to some delicious Santiago guitar work, a rare time he's allowed to really stretch out, underpinned by Deal's bass in an excellent denouement.

Widely credited as influential and now 33 years old, Doolittle still sounds fresh and exhilarating.

Philip Qvist: For years I have been reading articles from various music critics about how great Doolittle was, and how influential the Pixies were - and that this album should be on everybody's "must-hear" list.

So this week I finally gave this album a spin, and to be honest I am still wondering what the hype was all about.

Sure it's solid, in fact good, and Kim Deal is a pretty good bass player, Joey Santiago is a decent guitarist and Black Francis's lyrics and style of singing are unique, to put it mildly.

The songs are okay and the album is quite short for a 15 song record; so it makes for a decent album, which I can now cross off my "to do" list. But is Doolittle essential? Sorry, not for me - but that is the beauty of this forum; we can sure different opinions and views.

Ben L. Connor: I think Surfer Rosa has higher peaks (and lower lows) but this album feels more cohesive and is better paced. Doolittle exemplifies the state of indie rock pre-Nevermind - everything great about classic rock compressed into two-minute bursts of punk fury

Alex Hayes: Like some kind of aural equivalent of Helen of Troy, Doolittle by The Pixies really is the album that launched a thousand imitators. Unfortunately, I'm not a fan of any of them. Or it.

I just don't get alternative rock. Perhaps I've encountered too many 'indie snobs' down the years. NME or Q- worshipping 'purists', who enjoy looking down on other rock fans. "Oh my God, you actually prefer Led Zeppelin IV to the Meat Puppets". Cue the eye-rolling and mumbled comments about philistines. They'd be all over Doolittle. I don't like them, and I don't like their music.

I'm really just joking around here, so people don't need to take any of these comments too seriously. I suspect there's at least a kernel of truth under it all though.

In the same way that albums like Welcome To Hell and Seasons In The Abyss (both of which I loved) divided opinions within the Club, I personally find it a little jarring seeing Doolittle thought of as 'classic rock'. That's okay though. There's no rule here stating that I absolutely have to be a fan of every single nominated album, is there?

Definitely, definitely not my thing.

Brian Carr: The Pixies are revered by many, but just aren’t my thing. Too noisy and cacophonous for my taste, both instrumentally and vocally. I thought I’d at least be able to dig Wave Of Mutilation a bit having heard it on the 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume, but alas, the version from that film was a remix that I liked much more than the uptempo track on Doolittle. The one I like is labeled 'UK Surf'; I’d be interested to hear other Club member opinions comparing the two.

Iain Macaulay: Short review. Totally understand the idea of this album but it does nothing for me. Loved so many other so called ‘alt rock’ bands but never got The Pixies at all. Still don’t. Wife loves them though.

Adam Ranger: I prefer Surfer Rosa from the previous year. I think it showcases more who the Pixies were. However, Doolittle is a good album, and maybe brought the band to a wider audience.

It is perhaps "poppier" than its predecessor, but not excessively so, and still has some great tunes. That frenetic energy is also still present on some tracks. Not heard the album for a while, and it was great to revisit it. Scores highly for me.

If you are new to the Pixies it's a good album to choose. then listen to Surfer Rosa.

John Davidson: I'm generally a sucker for a great bass riff and there's plenty of chunky baselines in The Pixies songs to get my teeth into, but I'm not really blown away by the discordant garage vibes.

It's well made and has probably aged better than Smashing Pumpkins. If I'd owned a copy in the 90s and let it get under my skin I might appreciate it more but it's too dense to consume and appreciate in a couple of listens. I'm not going to score this week.

Mike Canoe: With the album Doolittle, the Pixies invented alternative rock. Well, not really, but that sure is what I thought in 1989. Never mind that many fine albums had already been recorded by many fine bands that could be called alternative rock, or college rock, or post-punk, or whatever. Never mind that the Pixies themselves had released an EP and an LP on the reliably fantastic independent British record level, 4AD. Doolittle was something special.

I think it still is. Definitely the best album they ever made, although admittedly I haven't given anything released this century a chance. Definitely one of the bellwether albums of the coming alternative nation and still one that holds up to regular playing. Thirty years on, it's honestly a little hard for me to remember why it stood out from all the other albums at the time.

Listening to it now, it feels like there was a palpable sense of danger that went beyond leather and spikes, a feral quality that I had not heard before. Black Francis hollered and howled like that neighbour you always tried to avoid; singing about slicing up eyeballs, God being seven if The Devil is 6 and Man is five, and the sound the mother makes when the baby breaks. This was profoundly weird stuff.

And at the same time, it was pretty accessible weird stuff; the harsh alien noises balanced out by a mix of old surf records and modern power pop. Though the madman out front, Black Francis, was the undisputed leader, the other Pixies were all part of the magic as well.

Kim Deal's bass kicks off the album on the gleefully savage Debaser and remains a steady throb all the way through to the harrowing closer, Gouge Away. When she joins Francis at the mic, she can sweeten the song (This Monkey's Gone To Heaven) or ratchet up the intensity (Tame) or both in the same song (I Bleed, Silver). 

The same can be said for how Joey's Santiago's guitar meshes with that of Black Francis. As is often the case with this kind of music, drummer Dave Lovering keeps it all from devolving into a formless squall. And his turn on lead vocals (La La Love You) perfectly skewers your typical pop love song.

Like the Velvet Underground or the Stooges or the New York Dolls or Suicide or (insert your favourite musical underdog here), the Pixies were far better at being an influence on future bands than a commercial juggernaut in their own time. Ironically, if Wikipedia is to be believed, they limped out with their last album of the millennium, Trompe le Monde, on the same day that Nirvana released Nevermind, an album Kurt Cobain admitted "was basically trying to rip off the Pixies." You can't write a better "changing of the guard" metaphor than that.

Alt

Final Score: 7.47 (61 votes cast, total score 456)

Join the Album Of The Week Club on Facebook to join in (opens in new tab). The history of rock, one album at a time.

Classic Rock is the online home of the world's best rock'n'roll magazine. We bring you breaking news, exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes features, as well as unrivalled access to the biggest names in rock music; from Led Zeppelin to Deep Purple, Guns N’ Roses to the Rolling Stones, AC/DC to the Sex Pistols, and everything in between. Our expert writers bring you the very best on established and emerging bands plus everything you need to know about the mightiest new music releases.