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Pixies, Damon Albarn, Ben Watt back with mixed results

Perspective: Blur frontman Albarn and Everything But the Girl's Watt release intimate, low-key solo albums, while the Pixies stick with the familiar.

April 26, 2014|By Mikael Wood
  • Damon Albarn, right, joined by De La Soul's Vincent Mason performs during the SXSW Music Festival on March 14, 2014, in Austin, Texas.
Damon Albarn, right, joined by De La Soul's Vincent Mason performs… (Jack Plunkett / Invision…)

The lead cut on the new Pixies album is called "What Goes Boom?," and one answer to that question is the Pixies' other albums.

Formed in Boston in 1986, this smart but savage guitar band did as much as any to invent what became known as alternative rock.

Its early records, such as "Surfer Rosa" and "Doolittle," were like a big bang that led to the creation of Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, whose Kurt Cobain once described his "Smells Like Teen Spirit" as a rip-off of the Pixies' soft-then-loud sound.

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Now, on Tuesday, the Pixies — who broke up in 1993, then got back together as a touring act in 2004 — will put out their first studio album in more than two decades. And they're not alone.

Damon Albarn, frontman of the great '90s Britpop band Blur, is to release his debut solo record the same day, while Ben Watt, whose duo Everything But the Girl was nearly as influential as the Pixies, has an album out Tuesday as well — the first under his own name since 1983.

No listener would deny these veterans' impact. Yet pop in 2014 isn't especially kind to its elders.

At this month's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, the Pixies played to a robust crowd (as did Blur last year), but other reunited rock bands had trouble connecting; the Replacements, in fact, drew such a small audience during the festival's first weekend that for their second appearance they brought along Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day to sing lead.

How, then, to go boom again?

Always a wily operator, Albarn addresses the problem by more or less avoiding it on "Everyday Robots," his moody, willfully small-scale new disc. It's a shift from the other work he's done outside Blur, which hasn't put out an album since "Think Tank" in 2003.

With Gorillaz he used animated characters and left-field collaborations to pull focus away from himself (and rope in comic-book readers and fans of Snoop Dogg); he stayed expansive for records like "Mali Music" and "Kinshasa One Two," both recorded in Africa, and "Dr Dee," an opera based on the life of an eccentric Elizabethan scientist.

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Here, though, Albarn turns inward with a set of hushed, intricately assembled songs inspired by memories of his childhood and thoughts on how technology has transformed modern life since then.

"We are everyday robots on our phones," he sings pensively in the title track, "in the process of getting home."

Co-produced by Richard Russell, with whom Albarn oversaw a 2012 comeback effort by soul singer Bobby Womack, "Everyday Robots" forgoes the big choruses and grinning sarcasm that Albarn delivered in Blur; the music layers skeletal guitars over fractured, slow-motion beats and crackles with bits of field recordings the singer made around his old East London neighborhood.

"Half my road was now a motorway / 1991," he murmurs amid the sound of kids at play in "Hollow Ponds," which looks at the same location in 1976, 1979 and 1993. "Up with the dreams we share on LCDs / Every moment now in every day."

The delicate result hardly feels like an attempt to appeal to listeners accustomed to the bludgeoning force of so much current pop. But whether it attracts those listeners or not, "Everyday Robots" captures something vivid about our screen-powered age. "Accepting that you live with uncertainty," Albarn sings, "If you're lonely, press play."

Watt attains a similar low-key relevance on "Hendra," his return to the solo songwriting career he put aside following 1983's "North Marine Drive" to concentrate on Everything But the Girl.

A British pop-soul duo featuring Watt and his wife, singer Tracey Thorn, EBTG last released a new studio album in 1999. (Watt has kept busy since then as a DJ and label owner; he's also written two books.)

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But the group's signature blend of breathy melodies, lovelorn lyrics and sleek electronic accents is all over recent work by younger outfits such as London Grammar, the xx and L.A.'s Rhye. And the sound glimmers from within the folkier arrangements on "Hendra," which Watt made with a creative team that included producer Ewan Pearson, who's also worked with Thorn on her solo material, and guitarist Bernard Butler, a Britpop contemporary of Albarn's from the band Suede.

Like Albarn, Watt uses those sonics to tell intimate stories about memory and loss — human drama playing out against a backdrop of technological detachment. "Always set on high alert, thinking that you will get hurt," he sings over the squelch of a vintage synthesizer in "The Heart Is a Mirror," "When so much of love is so neutral and so misread." How better to describe the expressive limitations of a text message?

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