by Caryn Havlik —
There are few things that the New Sounds All-Purpose Assistant loves more than the Pixies and brass bands / marching bands who party like brass bands...well, maybe pierogies. And this Asphalt Orchestra record, “Asphalt Orchestra plays the Pixies: Surfer Rosa” brings together these two loves, in an instant classic partnership like peanut butter & chocolate! Exceeding all expectations, the Asphalt players have turned out a collection of appealing and cheeky arrangements, incorporating the dynamics and start-stop of the Pixies’ signature loudQUIETloud, ingeniously capturing the musical tension of egotistical band-clashes (despite the balanced distribution of eight different Asphalt arrangers on the 13 tracks), and tapping the rawness and power of that original Steve Albini-produced Surfer Rosa record (without being partially recorded in a bathroom and minus crunchy guitars and drumset).
Known for arranging everything from the metallers Meshuggah to Balkan brass band master Goran Bregovic to Bjork to Charles Mingus, the twelve members of Asphalt are brass, wind & percussion players who are as mischievous and heavy as a punk-ass marching band on Bang on Can’s Cantaloupe imprint could be.
A bit of backstory - even though the NSAPA was devastated to have missed Asphalt Orchestra & Kronos at Lincoln Center Outdoors, when they debuted their Pixies arrangements at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival in July of 2013, video of the event surfaced:
The excitement grew here at the office as word spread of their taking on an entire Pixies record of arrangements and hearing that Cantaloupe would be releasing it. OK, *I* was out of my head with glee for a new music marching band of this caliber to take on formative songs of my adolescence from Surfer Rosa. It’s the Pixies record that has the David Bowie-covered blood-covered dress song “Cactus” and the surreal scuba song “Where is My Mind?” The one that also has “Bone Machine” and the disturbing “Break My Body,” (mutilation & incest.) Plus, the Kim Deal-co-written anthem “Gigantic” which has soundtracked many years of my life.
In fact, the Pixies themselves (no Kim) were so taken with these Asphalt Orchestra arrangements that they invited the band to join them on tour for two dates in early 2014, including a performance at the famed Capitol Theater in Port Chester, NY and one from NJPAC. Here's "Tony's Theme" from the latter date:
Then, back in May 2014, Asphalt released the teaser song “Tony’s Theme” from the studio via their Kickstarter rewards. And there was great rejoicing as well as lamenting amongst the staff at New Sounds. Imagine the horror of having to wait an extra SIX months before the record would be released!
That wait is OVER. The record came out on November 18, 2014 and New Sounds premiered the studio recordings of Asphalt's arrangements of “Bone Machine,” “Where Is My Mind?” and “Gigantic” as part of the show from October 21, 2014.
Here's "Bone Machine" from Soundcloud:
Listeners will find that the adoration for the Pixies’ material comes through on the record, yet none of the arrangements strictly adheres to the originals. (Also, studio banter about field hockey players is notably absent.) Some of the tunes bring all of the new music “avant-garde” squonk & clash, noodling with purpose, and attack (plus cowbell – MORE COWBELL) that fans of the original band might be able to bear. To that, one can only reply, “GOOD!” What’s the point of a faithful cover? It’s got to have something to keep a listener coming back, something still making it pop through the filter of all of the predictable tributes and gentle yet reverential adaptations that have come before.
On Asphalt’s rendition of “Gigantic” (arranged by Nathan Koci), they play around with teasing contrapuntal quotes and snippets of phrases from the song, until the main chorus theme finally erupts at 3:40. Then, on “Tony’s Theme,” (arranged by Peter Hess) there’s the unison-screamed intro, “This song is about a superhero named Tony; it’s called Tony’s thing!”- which is the only studio banter that made Asphalt’s record. On “River Euphrates” (arr. Stephanie Richards) there is a slow and sneaky approach of brass and winds before the two-note oscillation pattern emerges, mimicking the original vocals, speeding wildly until the percussion kicks in. But this isn’t just music for band nerds or new music cognoscenti, for on every track, this Asphalt Orchestra interpretation captures and amplifies the manic energy - that churn and swirl- like a broken face!- of those Pixies shows from the 1990’s (yes, I saw them a couple of times before the first breakup.) My favorite has to be the arrangement of “Where is My Mind?”(arr. Ken Thomson), which is as jubilant and explosive as one could hope for, possibly surpassing the original with the level of intensity in Asphalt’s celebratory rendition. I think I’ll go listen to that again.