With tension between band members running high, the Pixies finally succumbed to their internal discord and disbanded. Subsequently Kim Deal formed a new rock outfit in the form of the Breeders, while frontman Black Francis opted to embark on a solo career.
Following the Pixies dissolution, Black Francis sought a clean slate for his rock career, inverting his name in favor of the more marketable Frank Black, a more streamlined pseudonym indicative of his desire for a more commercially viable musical identity.
This desire for a crossover into the mainstream manifested itself in the form of a cover of the Beach Boys' Hang On To Your Ego, a single that Black hoped would finally penetrate the Billboard charts. Furthermore, the album itself is far more accessible than his past work, containing a plethora of pop hooks utterly devoid of the more dissonant connotations that were nearly ubiquitous in the Pixies output.
Fortunately, if these developments constitute a sellout, then it's certainly a very mild one; the material is still deeply strange and eccentric, and the overall style hasn't deviated too far from his erstwhile band's content.
The most important factor, however, is that Black was still in top form in the songwriting department, resulting in a multitude of strong, catchy melodies, utterly devoid of any filler either bland or abrasive in nature.
Much of the material was written for the fifth Pixies album that was not to be, resulting in content that's nearly on the level as some of the group's peak output. The hooks are plentiful, the styles diverse and the melodies memorable, from the hard rock of Ten Percenter to the infectious pop of I Heard Ramona Sing.
Ultimately, while this eponymous album may not match any individual Pixies album, it's certainly on a similar level to them. While Pixies fans may dismiss the album as 'Pixies lite,' the truth is that Black isn't betraying his surrealistic roots; he's merely adapted his style into a formula that suits his current endeavors. Many of the Pixies merits are preserved in this new musical equation, and this solo debut is far too quirky and offbeat to ever be mistaken for a true sellout.
The primary disparity between TotY and its predecessor isn't a question of style but rather of sheer volume. The album boasts 22 tracks and a length that exceeds the dreaded one hour mark.
As a result of this inflated run time fans are apt to leverage accusations of inconsistency, generally citing a marked decline in quality following the first half of the album, opining that the album would be far superior following a healthy dose of editing, transfiguring a behemoth of self-indulgence into a lean, consistent listen.
I, however, heartily disagree with that assertion. While the charges of midway deterioration may be true to an extent, all 22 tracks rise well above the level of filler, with each song decidedly earning its place on the album.
Black's songwriting is still at peak level, thoroughly involving the listener throughout its somewhat bloated length. From the multi-part rocker Freedom Rock to the hyper-concise openers Whatever Happened To Pong? and Thalassocracy (which each register at less than two minutes), to the gorgeous ballad (I Want To Live On An) Abstract Plain the album is filled with catchy, memorable Black classics.
While the second half can't hope to measure up to the immaculate first one, Black continues to sustain a high level of quality for the remainder of the tracks, with more than enough hooks to justify its presence.
Ultimately, once the listener is willing to see past the stigma of the album's length he'll find yet another high quality offering nearly on par with Black's debut. While his style continues to move further away from the classic Pixies sound, Black has developed a new musical identity for himself, one that plays to his strengths and helps differentiate himself from his previous work (making the shift from Black Francis to Frank Black seem less like an ultimately meaningless gimmicky trick of nomenclature).
While the transition from Black Francis to Frank Black is sad in a way for Pixies fans it was also a decision that seemed necessary for the group's erstwhile frontman to reach in order to progress further in his career. Rather than clinging to past glories Black has fashioned a unique and distinctive voice for himself, one that neither betrays his legacy nor hides behind it. This album is ample proof that this new identity is a highly successful one; it may not reach the same heights as his Pixies material, but it's the best one could hope for at this stage of his career, simultaneously establishing a new sound while still adhering to the properties that brought him this far in his career and made him one of the top musicians in the realm of contemporary rock..
The final installment in the pre-Catholics trilogy is not only a substantial step downwards from its exceptional predecessors but perhaps the worst album he's released to this day.
Attempting to be more overtly commercial and immediately accessible, Black assumes a more straightforward style that unfortunately leaves the CD susceptible to blandness and genericism.
The most egregious instance of this fault arrives in the form of the song I Don't Want To Hurt You (Every Single Time), a deeply derivative track that's devoid of every facet that makes Black the unique artistic entity he is. Consummately generic and familiar, the track seems like a vain attempt by Black to shed his idiosyncrasies and pen a mainstream ballad, resulting in a lifeless and tedious affair that could've been composed by any number of faceless pop scribes.
While the rest of the material rises above this level, much of it remains uninspired and bland. While many of the tracks manage to rock perfectly adequately, they often fail to offer much in the way of creative hooks or melodies, rendering them pleasant enough listens that will evaporate from your internal boom box the moment they reach their end.
While the album contains a few gems like the rocker Men In Black (that thankfully bears no correlations with the movie or the atrocious Will Smith rap single), more often than not it delivers decent and perfectly inoffensive material that lack much in the departments of memorability, imagination or substance.
While ultimately an entirely competent outing in contemporary rock, the album is a grave disappointment for Frank Black fans who've come to expect more from his releases. It's still sufficiently strong to warrant a listen or two from Black fans, but it isn't an apt representation of the quality of his work and won't win any converts from newbies who venture a glimpse into the (generally much more rewarding) world of Frank Black.
Finally fully extricating himself from the trappings of Pixies mythos, Black opted to pursue a more axiomatic, primal garage rock sound. To this end he recruited a stable backing band and christened them the Catholics.
To better showcase this new sound Black decided that the group's debut would be recorded live in the studio in a matter of days, releasing an album utterly devoid of overdubs or studio trickery.
This decision proved a wise one, as the live setting emphasizes the raw sound the band has to offer. Thus even when the songwriting falters the songs are salvaged by the pure energy of the live sound, ensuring that the music always feels fresh and vibrant.
This is not to denigrate the quality of the songwriting; on the contrary, while the songs are somewhat basic (which is natural given what the album is trying for) they're generally well written with an ample amount of hooks to make the tracks compelling.
The marriage of this powerful performance and tight songwriting make the album a highly enjoyable listen. However, it's definitely still a few tiers beneath Black's first two solo outings; as entertaining as the songs are, the live energy can't compensate from their somewhat primitive nature. While this can be overlooked given the context, it still can't generate songs that are up to par with his more ambitious recordings.
Thus while each song is entertaining there are no true Black classics. As fun a listen as it is it's badly lacking in depth and substance. It's still a must have for Black fans, but don't expect more from it than a fun, superficial experience. And in the end there's nothing wrong with that, as that's precisely what the album is aspiring to, and in that regard it's a complete success.
More of the same, really, with no tangible signs of progression. The group doesn't really challenge itself, cultivating the notion that they could churn out a dozen albums utilizing this formula and maintain a relatively static quality level throughout.
The equation of pairing basic rock songs with a raw, live sound comes naturally to the group, and while the album won't win points for experimentation or originality it still provides a consistent, entertaining listen.
While the album takes no risks, the formula it adheres to is still a successful one, and while it feels like a rehash of its predecessor it doesn't betray signs of stagnation. As I said, the group could likely generate a plethora of albums in this style and they'd likely all be at least moderately entertaining.
As the group becomes more comfortable as a unit the musicians continue to mesh more and more seamlessly with one another, leading to tighter, more fluid playing, developing a new signature sound for Black that's nearly wholly independent of his Pixies legacy.
The songwriting remains strong if unadventurous, always augmented by the band's live sound. The tracks seem content to simply provide a solid, unpretentious rock experience, lacking the ambition of his pre-Catholics output. While this makes for a consistently entertaining listen, it also prevents Black from achieving the musical heights he had in the past. It prevents the music from going awry as it often did in The Cult Of Ray, but it also prohibits the album from reaching the level of Teenager Of The Year or his eponymous debut. It's a very safe formula, guaranteeing a stable if unexceptional listen.
While the album is quite enjoyable it's certainly for the best that the subsequent CD was a departure from this style and a return to his more idiosyncratic persona. Had this not been the case then true stagnation could've set in, with Black releasing a veritable armada of entertaining but uninspired albums, all consummately frustrating in that they're too fun to dislike yet too uniform to elicit that much praise.
After basically coasting for a few albums, Black arrives with a return to form. Reverting to his quirkier, more offbeat side, Dog In The Sand depicts Black doing what he does best: composing eccentric, surreal and hyper catchy rock songs.
The album contains some material that ranks with Black's best efforts, from the anthemic Robert Onion to the epic Blast Off. Unfortunately it also contains some of his worst tracks, such as the banal, retroish Stupid Me that can't be redeemed by attempting to masquerade as a postmodernist homage, and the simply tedious I'll Be Blue.
While the album is marred by this erratic streak, the best material on here can easily compensate for these deficiencies; now that Black's experimental tendencies have resurfaced there're bound to be some misfires amidst the classics.
This album marks the first instance that the Catholics played on a more typical Black effort, and fortunately they're more than up to the task. Providing tight instrumentation throughout, they prove that they're capable of far more than gritty garage anthems.
The songwriting, by and large, is impeccable, featuring clever, inventive hooks and infectious vocal melodies (far more reminiscent, however, of his first two solo outings rather than the Pixies epoch). The songs feel fleshed out and intricately constructed, a far cry from the sloppiness and spontaneity that dominated his last two releases.
It's good to see Black with a renewed sense of purpose, rather than simply engaging in shallow jamming and garage rock enterprises. While its lack of consistency prevents it from ascending to the level of his debut and TotY, it's still an exceptionally strong entry into the realm of contemporary rock, yet another piece of evidence to counter those who allege that rock is dead. Boasting a set of original, catchy melodies, the album chronicles Black's never ending quest to search for new and imaginative hooks.
In a radical departure from Black's usual rock milieu, Black Letter Days is largely a flirtation with folk overtones, replacing the usual rocking sound with acoustic mellowness.
Unfortunately, Black had yet to master this musical form, and resultantly was unable to infuse his own personality into the proceedings, instead succumbing to the doldrums of derivativeness and genericism.
The album feels like a perfectly competent facsimile of the folk genre, with little to differentiate itself from any number of forays into the style. Furthermore, the album is drastically overlong (over an hour), oversaturated with similar sounding tracks, leading to a recurring case of monotony that manifested itself throughout the LP.
This isn't to say that the album is bad; while he has yet to make the style his own, Black still managed to compose decent enough tracks to make the album worthwhile, and it's always interesting to hear an artist braving a new direction for his work.
But Black had yet to figure out how to get the most out of the genre (he'd radically improve in this department in Show Me Your Tears and Honeycomb), leaving the album as a transitional effort, an experiment that had yet to achieve the desired results. Were he not to make further strides in the genre the album could be dismissed as a novelty, a 'Frank Does Folk' gimmick, and in that regard the album does sound more like he's emulating folk veterans rather than bringing anything new to the table.
The album largely feels like Black's searching for a new voice, with much of this endeavor proving to be in vain. But given Black's subsequent success in this area the album was a very necessary first step, a journey into the realm of imitation before he could fashion his own identity.
In the end Black Letter Days proves to be one of Black's lesser efforts, albeit a highly intriguing one as the listener hears him struggling to find a voice amidst the trappings of folk rock. While somewhat tedious at times, by and large the songwriting remains above average (albeit lacking Black's usual stamp on the proceedings). The hooks are generally there when it counts and the melodies are strong enough to involve the listener.
Ultimately the album accomplishes what it set out to do: building a firm foundation for Black to build his subsequent folk enterprises on. Proving Black's innate aptitude for the genre, the album is a harbinger of things to come; now that he's begun he's ready to progress onwards in this field.
Perhaps to placate embittered fans who were less than thrilled by the prospect of a folk reinvention of Black, the erstwhile Pixies frontman released a second album in 2002, this one far more reminiscent of his signature rock sound.
One gets the impression that the CD was rushed out; while the songs are all fully developed, the album is around the length of a typical EP, barely exceeding the half hour mark.
While this brevity is a problem, it's easily compensated for by the quality of the material. From the infectious pop rock of San Antonio, TX to the atmospheric His Kingly Cave to the guitar fiesta of Bartholomew, the album is packed with superior tracks, amongst the best derived from his solo career.
The material is all unmistakably Black's, as his eccentric personality is suffused with each offbeat, catchy song. Complementing this quirky ethos is highly strong songwriting, packed with inventive hooks and unforgettable melodies.
While there are certainly lesser tracks (such as the simplistic Are You Heading My Way?), nothing descends to the realm of true filler, with each song offering something to redeem it, be it a clever hook or striking lyric.
The album offers ample proof that whatever new direction his career will take he'll never lose his capacity for penning catchy, idiosyncratic rock. While the album is too short to measure up to his best solo material it's still a highly enjoyable listen; the songs feel fresh and exciting and are drenched in Black's unique charm.
Even if the LP was contrived of as a cynical measure to appease discontent fans and doesn't represent Black's true ambitions at that point in his career, it still never feels half-baked or as if he's simply going through the motions. If this is a tossed off effort, then Black must have been overflowing with musical ideas at this stage of his career, not to mention a versatility that converted any enterprise he embarked upon to gold.
Black's second venture into the territory of folk/country meets with considerably better results than its predecessor. The folk vibe feels more organic and less like a gimmick this time around, and likewise the quality of the songwriting has been ameliorated well above the level reached by Black Letter Days.
Furthermore, the album has a more appropriate length than its bloated precursor, making the CD far more consistent than its erratic counterpart.
Thankfully far more of Black's personality shines through on this outing, dispelling the blandness often encountered on Black Letter Days. Black seems more comfortable with the genre this time around, enabling him to adapt it more to his own style.
The Catholics have a great aptitude for the genre, making the instrumentation throughout very tight and precise. Whether or not country/folk is their specialty, they have a great flair for its dynamics and never sound lost or out of place.
The tracks are uniformly strong, with highlights including the haunting New House Of The Pope and the minimalist opener Nadine.
While there are few true classics aside from these present the album has a very tight, cohesive feel, making it more than the sum of its parts. The feel of the album is very involving, and its consistency makes it highly effective as a single entity.
While many may have problems with this new direction for the band, it's clear that by this point Black and company certainly handle it well. Black hasn't shifted musical paradigms for shock value or increased commerciality and he can hardly be accused of selling out; on the contrary, he's probably alienated more fans than he's gained through this maneuver, and it's doubtful that folk or country fans will now gravitate towards him.
Black has simply chosen a new direction and had the courage to stick with it over the protests of longtime fans. He's devoted himself to making it sound as authentic as possible while still imbuing it with aspects of his own style. It no longer feels like he's mimicking country/folk stars of the past; he's truly developed his own voice in this field and not backed down.
Ultimately Show Me Your Tears is quite a solid album, featuring strong songwriting and an immersive atmosphere. Much as I respect his willingness to take risks, however, my own bias disposes me in favor of his rock persona, but there's no doubt that in his group's progression Black hasn't half assed this country/folk metamorphosis, leading to quality outings such as this one (though I wouldn't mind if he released more albums along the line of Devil's Workshop to complement his country/folk excursions).
When it comes to releases intended primarily to exploit hardcore fans one always has to be wary, and this album is no exception; on the contrary, it adheres to this principle religiously. This two disc set may feature enough to educe hard earned dollars from Pixies fanatics, but for a casual audience it's near worthless.
Disc one is composed of demos of early Pixies work, solely featuring Black singing and strumming an acoustic. While it's intriguing enough to merit a listen, I can't fathom anyone wanting to hear it more than once. The disc's little more than a historical curiosity, archetypal bait for fanboys but not something that could be listened to and enjoyed by a casual audience. As interesting as seeing the roots of early Pixies songs is none of the tracks can even come close to matching their studio counterparts.
Even worse is disc two, a serious of radical reworkings of classic Pixies songs. These remakes are universally atrocious (especially the seemingly never ending version of Planet Of Sound, an ordeal that no man should ever be subjected to and forced to endure; it features the lyrics 'this ain't no fucking around;' if it ain't no fucking around then what precisely is it I'd like to know), butchering the originals and adding little of any value.
Reworking classic Pixies songs is an intriguing idea, and they wouldn't need to surpass or match the originals to be interesting, but the new arrangements are simply awful, neither clever nor inventive; when one has no inspiration or creative ideas it tends to be unwise to attempt an endeavor of this nature. I'm not a hardcore Pixies fan who would spout vitriolic invective accusing the disc of being heretical or sacrilege; it's simply that these Pixies perversions are so poor as to be painful to listen to, whether one has heard the originals or not.
In all this album has little in the way of redeeming value; should hardcore fans wish to subject themselves to this then it's their prerogative; casual fans, however, should avoid it like the plague. Showcasing Pixies songs on both ends of the spectrum, pre and post the classic versions, the album proves that the classic versions are all one really needs.
In order to delve even deeper into the realm of folk/country, Black temporarily disbanded the Catholics and recruited a number of skilled country session musicians. Resultantly, Honeycomb is Black's most authentic sounding entry into the genre to date, as well as proof that Black has achieved a measure of mastery over a form he once approached as little more than an imitator.
Black's songwriting more than keeps pace with his backing band, as he has reached a point where he can pen quality country tracks as effortlessly as he generated strong rock songs in the past.
Furthermore Honeycomb may be his most genuinely emotional, deeply personal endeavor yet; for someone generally disposed to aloofness and performing through a membrane of ironic detachment this is a rather large change, one that augments the potency of the album and matches the country stylistics perfectly.
From the achingly beautiful title track and Lone Child to the more upbeat, catchy I Burn Today, Black has composed yet another filler free set of quality country/folk offerings. Now fully proficient in the medium of country, Black sounds as natural and comfortable performing country songs as he ever did rock tunes.
At this point Black seems to have stylistically compartmentalized himself, unveiling his folk/country side through his Black sobriquet while his rock side primarily manifests itself through his resurrected Black Francis persona playing alongside the reunited Pixies. This enables him to divide his focus evenly between his disparate facets and give each the care and attention they deserve.
This album definitively proves that this country/folk direction is more than a passing phase that Black will soon grow bored with and move on from. While this may dismay a number of his older fans, it's apparent that Black has fully devoted himself to the quality of these projects, and the result is yet another meticulously crafted folk/country album from a man who grows more and more comfortable with the form with each passing release.
For his latest release Frank Black recruited an all star ensemble, with the likes of the session players he employed on Honeycomb, erstwhile Catholics and a plethora of other prominent musicians composing his backing band. The tremendous skill of this musical cadre contributes immeasurably to the proceedings, with their considerable talents ensuring that the instrumentation is always captivating, professional and immaculate.
Continuing in the country vein of his previous album, Black has upped the ante this time around by producing a double LP, with the material amounting to over ninety minutes of music. As lengthy as albums like Teenager Of The Year were, crafting an LP of this size is a first for Black, a dangerous gamble that fortunately, for the most part, pays off.
While still operating in the confines of the country paradigm, Fast Man Raider Man displays more diversity while remaining in the trappings of the genre; this manifests itself in the form of the occasional rocker, sporadic blues overtones and other deviations from the traditional country template. These divergences are essential to the album, as a double album necessitates at least a modicum of diversity (and, in the long run, a modicum is all it is).
Black's songwriting remains impeccable on this release, as he conjures myriad strong melodies and an array of creative hooks to sustain the listener's interest. By this point he's fully mastered the art of country songwriting, and with a lineup of musical virtuosos backing him the songs truly come alive with a perfect mix of country authenticity and a latent rock sensibility.
There are some severe problems, however. While when taken individually none of the songs can be branded filler, when you have this many tracks that are relatively stylistically uniform a degree of boredom and monotony is inevitable. Black endeavors to vary the sound as much as possible, but there are only so many variations on the archetypal country formula that he adheres to. The songs are all engaging and well written, but the album is simply too bloated, suffering from far too much sameness in the context of a ninety minute plus listen.
While my fondness for the individual tracks makes it difficult for me to recommend this, the truth is that the album should have been edited down to a more palatable single LP length, excising several of the songs to create a more streamlined listening experience. It's a pity that tracks of such a high caliber constitute a liability, but even Black isn't capable of making a double country album that doesn't begin to drag at a certain point.
Nonetheless the album is still very good, containing strong songwriting and unimpeachable instrumental performances, while even remaining enjoyable once it begins to drag. The truth is that, while overlong, the album has such a charming atmosphere that it can be entertaining while simply losing oneself in it, allowing the mellow country vibe to wash over you. From this perspective the length doesn't even seem like a handicap, making an already strong album that much stronger.
Black's second transparent installment in his conspiracy to educe as much cash as possible from his hardcore fans is thankfully vastly superior to its precursor, the decidedly underwhelming Frank Black Francis. There are correlations between the two, such as the preponderance of acoustic material on both outings, but overall Christmass is a far more rewarding experience, and won't leave listeners with the feeling that they've wasted both their time and money.
The album is a mix of live performances and new material hastily recorded in various hotel rooms over the course of Black's latest tour. Perhaps in an effort to differentiate between his solo live material and his recent Pixies concerts Black opted to make his shows purely acoustic, transfiguring both his latest work and older Pixies fare into unplugged anthems. This may evoke bad memories of the acoustic half of Frank Black Francis, but whereas those tracks were merely crude demos of unfinished numbers the acoustic tracks on Christmass are highly entertaining, with each song deftly converted into their new minimalistic forms. While hardly a virtuoso Black wields his axe with skill and precision, resulting in final products that may not be superior to their originals but are certainly strong in their own right.
Not all of the live tracks are flawless, however; when Black fails to adhere to the preexisting vocal melodies of a song the result is a somewhat clumsy, awkward experience, with this defect primarily manifesting itself in the forms of Cactus and Where Is My Mind? The impression left on the listener is that Black haphazardly rushed through the verses, as if he'd lost patience with his classic Pixies output (though he acquits himself admirably on Wave Of Mutilation). Those two tracks are still enjoyable, but they're undeniably marred by his negligence when it comes to timing and song structure.
Most of the live performances are terrific, however; creative reinterpretations of old numbers as well as faithful but well implemented renditions of his past work abound, from a rousing recital of the fan favorite I Burn Today to a moody run through of Raider Man.
Impressive as these numbers are, however, the true incentive to buy the album is found in the new material which, while erratic at times, is hardly a letdown after the strong live component. As alluded to before, these tracks were hastily cobbled together and recorded in myriad hotel rooms over the course of Black's tour, then subsequently sent to Planet Of Sound for some studio polish and the occasional instrumental overdubs. While there are misfires, like the defiantly experimental overblown a capella of the bizarre Radio Lizards, there are some tracks that rank up there with the zenith of Black's oeuvre, like the stellar opener (Do What You Want) Gyaneshwar with its infectious vocal melody and the pretty She's My Way with its overdubbed string section (as one would imagine, a first for Black).
Ultimately, while Christmass is far from essential for all but the most diehard Frank Black fans, it can still be enjoyed by even the most casual of listeners, offering more than simple fan service for a select few. An entertaining album in its own right, Christmass is more than a historical curiosity or obscure novelty like Frank Black Francis, doubling as both a satisfying live album and a sampler of some solid new, otherwise unavailable, material from the man himself.
The album is packaged with a DVD recording of selections from one of Black's acoustic performances, but after a viewing or two it's good for little more than inflating the price of the overall package. The renditions contained on the DVD are generally unremarkable but, once again, this is the ideal equation for milking Black's fans for even more cash. The quality of the DVD isn't figured into the rating of the album, and even if it were it hardly mars one's enjoyment of one's listening experience.
That a mere name change could garner such a profound reaction from the record buying public is a testament to the success of Charles Thompson's (AKA Frank Black, AKA Black Francis) compartmentalization of his musical identity, as a simple shift in nomenclature generated tremendous hype and boundless anticipation for his newest release.
After having performed under the sobriquet of Frank Black for well over a decade Thompson abruptly reverted to his erstwhile persona of Black Francis, a name he had previously only assumed when operating in the capacity of frontman/guitarist for his alternative rock outfit the Pixies. Part of this can certainly be attributed to the recent Pixies reunion, which doubtless not only evoked warm nostalgic memories for the eccentric rock star but also demonstrated just how lucrative an appeal to his former audience (those that he had failed to convert into Frank Black fans) could be; Black had always been reluctant to stage a Pixies reunion, convinced that only a modicum of the group's fanbase would care if the idiosyncratic ensemble was resurrected, but this line of thinking was revealed to be egregiously misguided, as the band's revival, however brief, displayed that there was still a massive audience for rock music of this variety.
Thus avarice was doubtless a factor in inspiring Thompson to return to the Black Francis moniker, along with a fondness for the early years of his career, but most likely there was far more to the decision than mere greed and pining for his glory days, and thus Bluefinger never comes across as an attention getting stunt or a forced effort to pen songs in the classic Pixies style; the album feels organic throughout, betraying no signs of cynical marketing or overt pandering to a certain portion of his audience.
The reversion to the Black Francis name, however, can be misleading, as it's difficult to determine precisely what constitutes Black Francis' style and what constitutes Frank Black's style; the album certainly differentiates itself from Thompson's recent flirtations with country, but then again there are few correlations between that stage of his career and his early output when he'd first donned the Frank Black persona.
Moreover, in this regard the sound of Bluefinger is closer to that of the likes of his eponymous debut and Teenager Of The Year than any of his actual Pixies output; at the time his first two outings were something akin to transitional efforts between Thompson's old stomping ground and his first solo endeavors, whereas now, in attempting to recapture the magic of the Pixies, Bluefinger resembles that transition in reverse. While Thompson attempts to approximate his old band's sound he's simply changed too much over the years to truly revive the spirit of the Pixies on demand, rather crafting work that's reminiscent of his early efforts to distance himself from the group's sound.
Nevertheless this isn't much of an impediment toward enjoying the album unless one's a diehard Pixies fan who contemptuously dismisses all of Thompson's post band efforts. If Thompson was indeed incapable of returning to the sound of the Pixies then returning to the sound of his solo debut and Teenager Of The Year is the next best thing, as those were two stellar albums that struck an ideal balance between the Frank Black and Black Francis identities, unlike his later work that exhibited few signs of his old rock persona, largely bereft of eccentricity and rock and roll energy.
Thus Thompson, now Black Francis once more, employed the likes of Teenager Of The Year rather than Doolittle as his template, and while this may be inadvertent, as he was likely aiming for the authentic Pixies sound, it also resulted in a highly entertaining listen that very well may be the closest Thompson comes to being Black Francis for the remainder of his career.
While Bluefinger draws upon early Frank Black as its influence is fails to live up to the standards of those projects, but despite this it remains a tremendously engaging listen, exuding more personality than he had in quite some time. The last time he'd achieved such a feat was with Devil's Workshop which, unsurprisingly, was his previous self-conscious attempt to emulate the Pixies.
The sound of Bluefinger is also somewhat reminiscent of albums like Pistolero, as the album draws heavily from the live band sound of the Catholics that was enacted at that stage of his career, resulting in a marriage of garage rock aesthetics inherited from that era and the charming eccentricity inherent to outings like Dog In The Sand and Teenager Of The Year.
The garage rock dynamics suit the album well, and perfectly complement Black Francis' adroit songwriting. From riff rockers like Captain Pasty to the idiosyncratic epic Threshold Apprehension to moody numbers like Test Pilot Blues to the sincerely emotional title track to the consummately decadent Tight Black Rubber, highlights abound on the album, with material alternating between guitar onslaughts, tender ballads and Black Francis' trademark melodic if mildly dissonant screaming.
Ergo what one derives from Bluefinger is wholly contingent upon which facet of Charles Thompson one is expecting to find here. There are certainly no traces of folk or country, which will alienate any new audience he'd cultivated through brilliant efforts like Honeycomb, while those who seek a more accessible, pop friendly Frank Black may be deterred by some of the discordant overtones imported from his days leading the Pixies.
Most of all, however, one must not be swayed by Thompson's most recent pseudonym swap; while there are certainly aspects of the Pixies sound present on the album Bluefinger simply does not truly feel like a Pixies product. Much as some fans may crave a new Pixies fix the days when Thompson could appease that portion of his audience are long past, and the closest he'll come to the heyday of that band is by filtering it through his Frank Black persona. This may corrupt the group in the eyes of Pixies purists, but it also represents the zenith of what Thompson's capable of at this juncture in his career, which is work of a high quality that by no means should be scoffed at.
Furthermore, Bluefinger should effectively dispel one's fears that Thompson had irrevocably given up the rock genre if favor of country, and much as I adore albums like Fast Man Raider Man I'm truly grateful for this rock and roll renaissance. At heart Bluefinger is simply a very entertaining rock album, filled with catchy melodies and memorable hooks. Rather than bemoan what it isn't, one would be better served to appreciate the album for what it is, which is Charles Thompson's best work in quite some time.
Once again favoring the neo-Pixies alternative rock persona of Black Francis over the twisted classic rock or country stylings of Frank Black, Charles Thompson's twenty-minute EP Svn Fngrs is a continuation of his previous effort Bluefinger, bred of the same nostalgia for his old group and keen awareness that over a decade after their dissolution the Pixies are more commercially viable than they've ever been, even at the peak of their existence.
There's usually a rather transparent ulterior motive behind the release of EPs, be it hyping an upcoming new album, trying to transfigure tracks that didn't make the cut on real LPs into legal tender or trying to keep one's name in circulation during a prolonged hiatus. Svn Fngrs, however, evades such simple pigeonholing, to the point that one can nearly wholly exonerate Thompson from any charges of nefarious avarice or conspiratorial hidden agendas.
Instead the purpose of Svn Fngrs appears decidedly more simple and innocent, namely that Black Francis has penned seven stellar cuts that he wants to be released, and moreover that his fans will actually want to hear. No attempts to educe cash from hardcore fans with superfluous or redundant offerings, no scheduling 'coincidence' with a new album arriving a few months later and most importantly a final product bereft of extraneous filler or tossed off novelties, a CD that's genuinely worth owning for more than obsessively completist reasons.
While its diminutive length prevents it from being a classic, Svn Fngrs' concise nature has its charms as well, allowing each individual track to shine. The opener The Seus sounds like a fusion of Primus and early Pixies, an eccentric groove filled with quirky hooks and offbeat lyrics. The contrast between the jerky rhythms and shouted vocals of the verses and 'normal' sounding refrain is adroitly implemented, and the degree to which Black Francis is transparently enjoying the number is communicated to the listener and engenders a certain charm into the idiosyncratic anthem.
More than any other track since the collapse of the band, Garbage Heap truly sounds like a Pixies song, a definite compliment that makes the song particularly enjoyable for fans of the long since retired group. Complete with guitar licks that sound as if they've been imported directly from Surfer Rosa and Francis' usual superb vocal treatment the song is an anachronism that's all the more fulfilling for its displacement in time.
Half Man is catchy pop at its most bizarre and unorthodox, I Sent Away is a primitive but enjoyable riff rocker, the title track is a definite highlight that deftly preserves the original Pixies mystique, The Tale Of Lonesome Fetter is more subdued yet still unique and unconventional and the closer When They Come To Murder Me is a stellar rocker in the classic Black Francis vein.
Thus Svn Fngrs is a profoundly enjoyable listen that compensates for its brevity with a highly consistent and rewarding experience. While the EP is hardly tantamount to a revival of the Pixies, it is a celebration of many of the elements that made them such an exceptional band in the first place, and the fact that a mere afterimage of the original group could make for such an entertaining listen is a tribute to the stunning quality of the band in their prime.
Those who have charted the course of the storied career of indie-rock legend Black Francis, from the inception of the Pixies to his adoption of the Frank Black sobriquet, are acutely aware of quite how unpredictable the twists and turns of his unorthodox musical history have been.
From acting as the frontman for one of the premier indie rock attractions to abruptly dissolving the group when they were still at their peak to assuming a new moniker as a solo performer to christening his backing band The Catholics to embracing country music to his reversion to his old pseudonym to initiating a reunion for the Pixies, Black Francis was never one to play it safe, resulting in a career marked by spontaneity and counter-intuitive decisions. Few could correctly anticipate Black Francis's next move at any juncture, surrounding him in an almost mythical mystique for sheer shock value alone.
Even in the midst of a musical career that's spanned decades Black Francis still hasn't lost his ability to take his fans off guard, a fact that's clearly illustrated by his latest venture, the launching of the indie rock outfit Grand Duchy.
Less a group and more a duo, Grand Duchy is comprised of Black Francis and his wife Violet Clark. For perhaps the first time in his career Black Francis has delegated equal creative control to a collaborator, making for a truly democratic endeavor. While the intelligence of this dynamic can certainly be disputed, it's admirable that at this stage of his career Black Francis is willing to truly try something different, allowing his partner to expand his musical horizons in ways that he certainly would not have been open to in the past, either when he ruled the Pixies with an iron fist or when he followed his own whims during his stint as Frank Black.
Unfortunately, while Violet Clark is treated as Black Francis's equal in the group she certainly isn't his equal in talent, a fact that becomes abundantly clear as the album progresses. Vocally she displays an uncanny resemblance to erstwhile Pixies member Kim Deal, but ironically enough she lacks the chemistry that the Breeders head honcho had had with Black Francis.
It's in the songwriting department that Clark's liabilities become most apparent, however. She certainly demonstrates a troubling affinity for 80's pop music, which becomes the mode of choice for the bulk of the album. This fondness for that bygone decade is bereft of any satirical, ironic or postmodern elements, and even if it is self-aware to some extent it doesn't change the fact that Grand Duchy's music shares all of the faults inherent to 80's music.
Generally stereotypical eighties pop is rather limited in its scope, ensuring that much of Grand Duchy's material, much like its anachronistic influences, is at best a guilty pleasure and at worst irredeemable kitsch.
Violet Clark isn't devoid of talent, and working within an eighties context, a milieu in which she's clearly quite comfortable, she manages to pen some decent melodies, as is demonstrated by the likes of the whimsical Volcano and the catchy Lovesick.
Unfortunately, at times she succumbs to her own self-indulgent excesses, resulting in 'cute' moments that are supposed to be charming (like her recurring spoken passage in Break The Angels) but end up amounting to little more than grating, hip-posturing.
Predictably enough, most of the album's best parts arrive courtesy of Black Francis. Thus Come On Over To My House is a solid opener, retaining many fundamental aspects of Black Francis's old sound, but the zenith of Petits Fours comes in the form of Black Suit, a track that truly makes the eighties sound work. Boasting the best vocal interplay between the wedded couple on the album, the track impresses on all fronts, from its catchy melody to its dark yet unmistakably (and irresistibly) eighties atmospherics to Black Francis's trademark banshee-like screeching.
Unfortunately little else can compare to that particular highlight, as even the Black Francis-dominated Fort Wayne is a bit too bland to ever become especially compelling or memorable. Little on the album is outright bad, but much of it is simply alarmingly nondescript, a rarity for the ever idiosyncratic Black Francis and a testament to Violet Clark's negative influence on the proceedings.
Thus the parallel I drew before stands: much like eighties music in general, Petits Fours is a guilty pleasure, infested with the trapping of the much reviled musical decade while still containing enough elements, be they catchy hooks or alluring moods, to make for a somewhat enjoyable experience.
Grand Duchy simply can't compare with anything else in Black Francis's canon; Violet Clark demonstrates at least a modicum of talent, producing some entertaining compositions, but she forces her husband to perform at her level, a level that he had long since transcended and progressed beyond. This heavily curtails his own prodigious gifts, resulting in a product that simply depicts Black Francis going through the motions, leaving the vastly inferior Clark as the de facto leader, a position that she is by no means ready for.
Whether as the unhinged mastermind behind the Pixies, an offbeat indie pop guru, a flippant and irreverent rock star or an earnest country singer-songwriter, Black Francis has remained an ambitious and versatile performer for the duration of his career, trying his hand at an array of diverse and eclectic styles. Thus it's rather surprising that the erstwhile Frank Black has never tackled one of the staples of intelligent and experimental rock, namely the concept album.
With The Golem, Black Francis corrects this oversight, and unsurprisingly he does so in one of the most eccentric and seemingly random ways possible. For his first ever concept album, Black Francis has elected to provide a soundtrack for an obscure German 1920s silent film, an elliptical decision that can doubtless only be explained by the artist himself.
As it happens, the album poses a rather unique dilemma for me as a reviewer. If the purpose of a positive critique is to recommend that the reader purchase the album in question, then this entire review is meaningless. The version of The Golem that I possess is a limited edition box-set containing the two disc soundtrack, a two disc live performance of the album and the film in question (fully accompanied by Black Francis' score). Only five hundred copies of this box-set were released, and they've long since sold out with no hope of a reissue.
It's been announced that a single disc containing the album's full-fledged songs will soon achieve mainstream release, but in addition to omitting the film and the live run-through of the album this edition also excises the myriad instrumental segues and reprises featured throughout the soundtrack.
This issue could be ignored if I felt that the box-set and the imminent compressed variation are interchangeable, but quite frankly I feel that this couldn't be further from the truth. It's not that the segues are vital items of rock and roll genius; they're uniformly strong, but when taken individually they don't hold up to scrutiny the way the full songs do.
Nevertheless I feel that these instrumentals are indeed essential, as they add another layer to the album as a whole, transfiguring The Golem into something above and beyond a mere collection of rock songs.
I don't attribute this greater depth to any intrinsic merit in the film itself. As a motion picture, The Golem is more remarkable for Black Francis' soundtrack than its own story and execution.
Even when wholly divorced from its context as a soundtrack, the album is a work of art, and it's elements like the transitions and reprises that enable The Golem to transcend its status as a traditional work of modern rock.
This greater depth may not be derived from storytelling, the artistic fusion of music and image or any such lofty goals, but it's still a very real and integral part of Black Francis' latest creative vision.
It's true that the album is sufficiently strong that even if it shed the trappings of a concept album it would remain a brilliant work of art, but that's precisely what differentiates the box-set of The Golem from its upcoming release in bastardized form. The box-set, the way the album was truly meant to be experienced, takes what's already a topnotch collection of rock songs and uses it as a foundation to make a greater artistic statement, one that can't be delivered with a stripped-down approach.
Even so, I can still recommend any version of the album without reservation, as The Golem provides Black Francis' best set of songs since Teenager Of The Year. From the mournful Bad News to the supremely catchy pop-rocker Astaroth, the album is filled with truly exceptional works of rock and roll art. Most tracks are imbued with Black Francis' trademark off-kilter charm and whimsy, which further augments an already impressive set of songs.
It's clear that Black Francis never took the film very seriously, but this never works to the album's detriment. Rather, this apathy toward the movie helps make Black Francis truly make the music his own, as he's never tied down or restricted by concerns of adhering to the plot or the filmmaker's original intent. Black Francis has free reign to take the album in whatever direction he wishes, injecting his own unique personality into all of the content.
There's no doubt that anyone who purchases the upcoming abridged version of the album will more than receive their money's worth, but it's still troubling that such a compromise has to be made. The Golem is truly a work of art, and can only be enjoyed to its fullest when presented in proper form. On the box-set every element comes together to make a brilliant whole, and thus the condensed version simply feels incomplete. If one has only listened to the edited album then one will be more than content with that version, leaving only a select few (or 500, to be exact) who've truly experienced the full scope of Black Francis' brilliant vision.
While one would scarcely expect a subtle change in nomenclature to have a profound impact on an artist's development, ever since Frank Black reassumed the Black Francis moniker his career has enjoyed something of a creative renaissance. A skeptic might have speculated that the reversion to the Pixies-era sobriquet was a cynical ploy to lure in old fans who had been deterred by the country/folk stylings of Frank Black. Moreover, one could easily surmise that the product of this name change would be little more than Pixies-lite, and while it was a superb album Bluefinger did little to dispel this notion.
As it turned out, however, this couldn't be further from the truth. After becoming mired in underrated but admittedly repetitive country music it was clear that Frank Black was in something of a creative rut. Thus his reemergence as Black Francis afforded him the boundless artistic freedom he needed to get his career back on track. Bluefinger may have rather transparently paid homage to the classic Pixies era, but the eccentric Svn Fngrs already showed signs of creative progression.
That off-kilter EP was closely followed by The Golem, a soundtrack that might very well have been the most ambitious and experimental venture of Black Francis' post-Pixies career. While one may have anticipated a return to the status quo following that artistic gambit, Nonstoperotik defiantly contradicts those expectations, resulting in a product that sounds unlike anything that preceded it.
Once again Black Francis simply refuses to play it safe, releasing his second concept album mere months after his first one. This isn't indicative of a new formula; Black Francis hasn't become a latter-day Ray Davies, penning rock opera after rock opera in a fit of total artistic self-indulgence and pretentious excess. On the contrary, Nonstoperotik doesn't tell a story, nor is it reminiscent of The Golem in any sense. It's a wholly unique product, with nary an analogue in Black Francis' canon.
As one could easily infer from the title, Nonstoperotik is a concept album about sex. It's not pornography, as it attempts to be neither arousing nor titillating. It's not mood music to copulate to, and Black Francis is far too great an artist to simply adopt a concept for cheap shock value. It's not a meditation on love or relationships, of either a risqué or innocent nature. In fact, it's quite difficult to ascertain precisely what Black Francis is trying for with this album, an oblique work that's all the more fascinating for its cryptic character.
One might fear that, thanks to the Nonstoperotik's unifying concept, the album would grow repetitive, but thankfully this is never the case. While the songs may be, at heart, about sex, their approach to that erotic subject matter is decidedly unorthodox. The result is a collection of songs that, while thematically linked, span myriad genres, each taking a vastly different approach to the matter at hand.
Impenetrable ruminations on intercourse aside, what makes Nonstoperotik a great album is the high caliber of the songs, as Black Francis has remained in top form ever since returning to his erstwhile stage-name. Diverse, intelligent and with hooks aplenty, the set-list of Nonstoperotik is nearly flawless.
While there's ample opportunity for Black Francis to screech at the top of his lungs like a banshee going through childbirth, some of the album's finest moments are contained in the more mellow tracks. O My Tidy Sum is simply beautiful, featuring a topnotch falsetto from the deceptively vocally versatile Black Francis, while Rabbits, with its catharsis-inducing refrain, is a definite highlight as well. When I Go Down On You, while it may seem comically overt, is still erotic balladry at its finest, as is the title track, complete with more achingly tender vocals.
This is to take nothing away from the rougher tracks, however. The opener, Lake Of Sin, employs a classic soft/hard dynamic to great effect, while the incongruous but entertaining Flying Burrito Brothers cover Wheels is a tight, compact rocker. Dead Man's Curve and Corrina are catchy pop rockers, and the closer, Cinema Star, boasts a terrific riff and infectious energy. Wild Son is a moody, ominous shuffle made all the better by the fact that it sounds nothing like anything else on the album, which isn't to say that it isn't a great song in its own right. Six Legged Man, a stellar rocker, is the closest the album comes to Pixies territory, but the track still carves its own identity and sounds fresh and exciting throughout.
Thus Nonstoperotik is another classic from the newly reinvigorated Black Francis. Boasting incredible songwriting and strong instrumentation, the album packs an amazing amount into a short (less than forty minute) runtime. While the exact meaning of the concept proves elusive, this fact simply makes Nonstoperotik all the more intriguing, and Black Francis' refusal to allow the album to sound like either the Pixies or Frank Black results in a distinctive, idiosyncratic and fascinating listen.
It's quite understandable why many will approach Abbabubba, a jumbled together collection of B-sides, demos and other assorted rarities, with trepidation. After all, the last time Black Francis released a proper compilation the product was the monumental fiasco Frank Black Francis, an utter debacle that will not soon be forgotten.
Furthermore, at first glance it appears that Abbabubba shares many of the same liabilities as its odious predecessor. Frank Black Francis is bifurcated into two sections, a ragtag array of demos and a series of remixes of classic Pixies fare.
As far as the former is concerned, Abbabubba mirrors this side FBF with a handful of uniformly inferior demos and early versions of Black Francis cuts. While some may laud the raw, primal power of a stripped down Dead Man's Curve or Do What You Want (Gyaneshwar), most will bemoan the lack of sophistication and polish that Black Francis subsequently brought to these tracks through adroit studio treatments. Similarly, an older rendition of Rabbits offers nothing that the Nonstoperotik version doesn't do better, making it feel colossally redundant and superfluous.
Anyone who's endured FBF, however, will know that it's the remixes that are the true offenders. The demos could at least be viewed as historical curiosities, but there's absolutely nothing whatsoever that can redeem these invidious reinterpretations. While Abbabubba spares its listeners the torture of enduring an entire disc of incompetent remakes, it still has a nasty surprise in store for those still recovering from the never-ending coda of FBF's cut of Space (I Believe In).
This time around Black Francis has decided to subject his audience to a trio of remixes of Svn Frngrs's Primus-like opener The Seus. Each of the three tracks has been remixed by a different group, with the culprits being Infadels, Charles Normal and Bloc Party. I can't fathom why Black Francis didn't consider transfiguring The Seus into a tedious and tasteless electronica jam a personal insult, let alone why he would imagine that his fans would want to hear it. While this only encompasses three out of fifteen tracks, it's still enough of a violation of good taste that it can't help but mar the entire listening experience.
Together these remixes and lackluster demos constitute two-fifths of Abbabubba, an unfortunate ratio that hardly bodes well for the album as a whole. Additionally, tracks like the dissonant duo of Il Cuchaiao and Get Away Oil are perfect examples of what happens when Black Francis goes on creative autopilot, relying on exaggerated and headache-inducing screaming to mask a lack of inspiration and substance.
Fortunately, as is often the case with products of this nature, there are some hidden gems. The title track, while hardly a timeless classic, is quite catchy. Serious Curious is more notable for its menacing coda than for any melodic merits of its own, but it was still well worth salvaging from whatever anonymous corner of Black Francis's vault it had been occupying.
Ghost Coming is moody and well-written, with some irresistible falsetto from Black Francis that amply demonstrates that his vocal chords are good for more than banshee-like shrieking. Virginia Peel is another solid track if one can overlook the grating spoken overdubs that threaten to dominate the entire song. The Water is quite impressive, but it clearly needs an extra layer of polish in order to realize its full potential (which very well may happen if Black Francis decides to give it the full studio treatment on a future album).
Thus, like most compilations of this variety, Abbabubba is a flawed product. There are indeed some quality offerings amidst the incessant demos, remixes and misfires, but they're apt to get lost in the shuffle. Worse, while some of the rarities are quite entertaining, I don't count a single classic amongst the album's fifteen tracks. Nevertheless, the album's highpoints thankfully place it light-years above the abysmal Frank Black Francis. While that's certainly damning Abbabubba with faint praise, that's really the only kind of praise that the collection deserves.