So, ask somebody about the Pixies and you might hear that they were the best band of their time. Or that they invented indie rock. Or that Doolittle is the greatest record ever. Or that Nirvana ripped them off. You might hear none of that of course but if you start cocking an ear to this thing called alternative music some whisper of the Pixies will surely reach you. And what do the Pixies have to say about it? “RAIIRAIIRAIIRAIIRAIIRAIIRAIIR”

That’s the sound Black Francis makes on “River Euphrates”, the first track on this B-Sides collection which you might hear called a better record than most bands’ best work. Not by me, though. Not by them, either: Black contributes humble sleevenotes and is aware that the sound of the Pixies zipping through a videogame theme is just that and no more. Or maybe he thinks the noises on the tracks speak for themselves.

Which they do. They’re just not saying anything. Listen to the Pixies now and what strikes you is what a blank band they are. They sang about esoterica – Bible stories, sci-fi, and grotesquerie – and their working method was to “cut out everything you’ve heard before”, which naturally included most ordinary human feeling and content. That’s not a criticism because the band made such a thrilling, taut, tempestuous noise, but the starting point for enjoying the Pixies should be understanding that they were one of the most abstracted bands in rock history. Black Francis’ scream, his bandmates remembered, could be turned off and on at will: it signified nothing deeper or more primal than any other neat sound in the group mix.

One of the great Pop Art bands, in other words. Frank Black understood this when he split the band – “listen to the old records when you’re feeling nostalgic” he sneered at the kids to whom the Pixies meant everything, when in fact the Pixies meant nothing. That was what made them so electric. The best songs on the Complete B-Sides are “River Euphrates”, marrying a nonsense travelogue to a vast pre-verbal roar, and the tranced-out “Into The White”, a glorious thunder into the void. The one remotely empathic moment is “The Thing”, a demo of the coda from Bossanova‘s “The Happening”. Black Francis always sounded excited and moved whenever aliens came up, and his breathy, hopeful fantasy of an LA Close Encounter puts a shiver in you.

Generally, though, if the four studio records are bound albums of beautiful memories, the Complete B-Sides is a disposable camera full of drunken snapshots. Black Francis’ quality control was notorious: few of the songs here are bad, but few of them would have slotted easily onto albums, either. The band’s strengths and weaknesses are thrown into focus: Santiago’s surgical guitar is a joy throughout, but “In Heaven” shows how Black could lazily work a crowd just by screaming an oddball cover.

Mostly, though, this stuff is short, enigmatic, insubstantial and exciting. The uneasy rhythms of “Bailey’s Walk” approximate a hobo’s lurch; “Weird At My School” gets bug-eyed over sex with nuns (the Pixies sang about sex a lot, but Black Francis was never sexy); one can never really get bored of hearing “Vamos”; “Manta Ray” gets a kicking in the sleevenotes but if it’s Pixies-by-numbers they are at least prime numbers. And so on.

There is nobody like them now. How could there be? Nirvana changed everything about how rock bands work, and for all Cobain’s suggestions that they were a Pixies tribute band the resemblance is hardly even sound-deep. Nirvana never sounded as detached as the Pixies, or as fluid, or as fun. And Nirvana and company let the emotional genie out of the bottle, which let ‘punk’ cross over and altered the rules of the indie rock game more effectively than Black Francis and company could ever have. The Pixies are best loved as a beautiful, baffling one-off: let this collection casually remind you of their cold, tricksy brilliance, and then move on.