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Monday, April 10, 2006

Trompe Le Monde

Sometimes oral histories can feel like you're overhearing bitter old people talk about the good ole days in a bar. Other times, they can be way more effective than any author could cook up in his or her own words. Upon finishing Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz's Fool the World: the Oral History of a Band Called Pixies, I'm happy to say that this oral history belongs in the latter category.

For years, us Pixies fans had to piece the band's story together with very little information. We had four proper albums, one EP, a bunch of b-sides, a tribute album and years of accolades by all kinds of artists at our disposal. Sure, there were plenty of interviews done with the band back when they were together, but by the time that me and my friends were getting into the Pixies (the mid-'90s), all we knew was what we had heard through the grapevine. A BBC documentary on the band (which interviewed a number of artists, writers and three-fourths of the band) was a brief little summary at best. I'm sure more people wished to know a little more, but the band seemed incredibly private on the matter.

When I saw a Pixies oral history on the cover of Spin in late-'04, I felt I had to at least take a look. Turns out, author Marc Spitz wrote up an excellent retelling as it featured all four of the band members and a whole slew of people involved with them back in the day. Reading it as a fan, I found this way of telling the band's story to be really interesting. There was no master magician spinning yarn and trying to be poetic about the mythos of the Pixies. It was cut and dry, but perfect. Since the band was still super-private, I thought that was the extent of what we would have as far as a Pixies history. Let me just say, if you liked Spitz's "Life to the Pixies," you will probably/most definitely get a kick out of Fool the World.

I love it when rock bios resize big fish stories and debunk myths. For some, that takes all the fun away, but for me, the act makes things more understandable and relatable. Upon reading this book, my feelings on the Pixies' back catalog have not changed, but I now know a lot more about the stories behind the songs, the artwork and how the way the band was perceived at the time they were originally around. What helps is that the recounters (band members, friends, managers, recording engineers, peers, fans, label folks, journalists, filmmakers, artists and so on) are generous with information and don't come across as boring or bitter. The book celebrates all of the band's life, from its beginnings right up to its current reunited status, without turning it into an episode of Behind the Music. Nothing feels incomplete here, but nothing feels overwhelming either.

I applaud the fact that the book is incredibly thorough. From interviewing almost every crucial person involved, there is very little of people speaking for others not present. This is a rare thing in rock bios since it can be a royal pain in the ass to get somebody onboard for input. Whether the person is MIA, hard to get on the phone or just not interested in talking on the record, it's really cool when so many people are on board. I especially loved reading the quotes from 4AD's Ivo Watts-Russell and producer Gil Norton.

The story of the Pixies is told in a very balanced and palatable way in Fool the World. I don't know if I could recommend this to somebody who has never heard their music before, but if you're curious about how to tell an effective history of a band, give this one a look.

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