Boston’s surf-grunge-punk weirdos the Pixies became not just legends to the generation that grew up on their psychotic, hissed whisperings and big, bouncy, fuzzy riffs, but also one of those cultural building blocks, an influence so all-pervading that ‘sounds a bit like the Pixies’ became too crass an observation to even bother making. It’s fair to say that the solo work of their frontman Black Francis, known to his mother as Charles Thompson, and later as Frank Black (just Frank will do for our purposes) didn’t have the same impact. Up until the Pixies reunion, Frank mainly shunned nostalgia and legend-status, relasing rough-and-ready albums at a prolific rate – sometimes a little too prolific. But if you’re a patient delver, there’s plenty of gold in them them thar discs. Let’s start at the stony end, though…
10‘Black Letter Days’/’Devil’s Workshop’ (Frank Black And The Catholics, 2002)
These two were released simultaneously, only a year after Frank’s previous album ‘Dog In The Sand’, and a whopping 29 tracks between them didn’t bode well in terms of focus and quality control. ‘Black Letter Days’ starts well with the psychobilly camp-horror party that is ‘The Black Rider’, Frank goofing “Come on in, it ain’t no sin… take off your skin and dance around in your bones!” The strong start soon erodes into mere serviceability, though, the cardinal sin that dogs much of Frank’s less scintillating solo work. There are great moments: ‘How You Went So Far’ is a cracked-voice lament of some beauty, while ‘1826’ is a lurching beast, almost Fall-like. ‘Devil’s Workshop’ feels rawer as a whole, but the songcraft isn’t consistent enough to grab you, although the Evil Tom Petty turn on ‘Eloise’ and the sardonic punk-boogie of ‘Whiskey In Your Shoes’ are diverting. Altogether, they’ll do.
Frank’s solo career has most often been burdened by a tendency to give too much of a good thing; where the weary warmth of ‘Honeycomb’ was suprising and sweet, ‘FM/RM’ belaboured the point. ‘In My Time Of Ruin’ finds a middle ground between Frank’s old and new, rough edged and upbeat, shaking the tambourines its mother gave it, and the sassy piano-and-horns strut of ‘Dog Sleep’ is enjoyable but the likes of ‘The End Of THe Summer’ are frankly a bit of a drag.
With its unsettling Frank-as-pageant-queen cover (a gender-weirded visual echo of the sleeve of Hole’s ‘Live Through This’ released a month earlier), this album is a little, shall we say, wayward, and again over-self-indulgent. Released just as ex-Pixies-bandmate and ex-lover Kim Deal was striding to alt-success with The Breeders, this rambling double disc tanked like a lead aquarium. Time and patient listening reveal treasure though, if Frank’s not exactly stretching himself, like the gently rolling punk singer-songwriterdom of ‘Speedy Marie’ and the breezy, creepy ‘Headache’ with its bright brassy punk-pop riffs and harmony-howled chorus.
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Frank’s most recent effort leaves country behind on the likes of ‘Cinema Star’, full of smooth Sonic Youthish shifting alt rock textures. ‘Corinna’ feels more like old-school Frank, distorted and dirty with falsetto backing vocals. The title track, meanwhile, is a strange sort of piano ballad that keeps threatening to break into Nilsson’s ‘Without You’. The lyrics, which should be ‘ewww’ actually come across hearfelt: “Inside of you/All the way… every way in you.” OK, they’re still a bit weird. It’s probably best not to talk about ‘When I Go Down On You’, but nonetheless a solid late bloom.
Newly freed from the Pixies and what had become a difficult atmosphere, the erstwhile Black Francis (you may be able to see what he did with the new stage name) released a solo album that crackled with sardonic energy. Not a million miles (or even a score, really) from the Pixies last effort, ‘Trompe Le Monde’, it boasts deadpan alt.pop gems like ‘I Heard Ramona Sing’, the bristly Latin-tinged speed punk of Brackish Boy and the chunky, shiny ‘Fu Manchu’ with its chugging riffs and nagging horn hook. The new wave-y cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Hang On To Your Ego’ is another belter.
This was nominally the second album Frank recorded with his backing band The Catholics (Lyle Workman of guitar, David McCaffrey on bass and Scott Boutier on drums), although the same band had played on ‘The Cult Of Ray’ also. An album characterised by acerbic and snarly country punk, ‘I Switched You’ in particular a bitter bronco ride. Solid air-punch tunes like ‘Tiny Heart’ are well-structured and honed, sticking with the short, sharp live recording method. Also of note are the witty song and sentiment no woman ever wants to hear, ‘I Love Your Brain’ , the chunky, frenetic ‘So Hard To Make Things Out’ and the brattily brilliant ‘I Want To Rock N’ Roll’
4The Cult Of Ray (1996)
This is a prickly listen, more fired up than ‘Teenager Of The Year’. If the previous two albums were a little Frank-by-numbers even at their best, here he sounds like he has something to prove – the difference lies partly in the production, with this recorded live at speed. Opener ‘Men In Black’ is bullish, fired up fully charged FM punk rock. A year after Foo Fighters’ punchy, perky, UFOs-and-aliens tinted album of radio-friendly alt-punk rock had shot them to instant success, maybe Frank was looking to claim his intergalactic turf back. The frenetic guitar wig-out of ‘Mosh, Don’t Pass The Guy’ is a thrill, the attitude-heavy chug of the title track is snug and satisfying and the uncharacteristically heartfelt mournful country ballad of ‘I Don’t Want To Hurt You (Every Single Time) was destined for lovelorn indie mixtapes.
Though somewhat overshadowed by the Pixies’ reunion, Frank’s full-on Nashville session muso country moment is a gem. The ‘country element’ was hardly a surprise; the tone and the quality sheen of the musicianship here were – his idea of recording a Dylanish ‘Black On Blonde’ album was a longstanding one. The likes of the moody, train-chugging-down-the-tracks tension of ‘Lone Child’ and the winsome, twangin’ romance of ‘Selkie Bride’ set up home in the brain in a way that Black’s solo material hadn’t for a while, while the eerie title track proved that under the polish he was still weird ol’ Frank.
Right in the year when Jack White and his favourite sister were grabbing the world by the scruff of the neck with their garage blues, Frank Black was perfectly prefiguring Jack’s later weirdo country guise. The days, if they ever existed, when he cared about being the Great Black Francis with a generation hanging off his every howl are long gone; Frank’s having fun on the likes of the silly ‘Robert The Onion’ and the wonky-tonk ‘Hermaphroditos’ , but this time we are too, and it does feel like he’s making a little more effort to grab the attention on this album. Or as Frank puts it on the moody ‘Bullet’ “If you don’t like my melody I’ll sing it in a major key… everybody’s all aboard… let’s take it back to that minor chord”.The addition of Eric Drew Feldman on piano livens up Frank’s now taut bar-band groove on the Satanic Springsteen vibe of ‘Stupid Me’. ‘Off’ is tense and mean, while ‘St Francis Dam Disaster’ has a rich, Dylanish drama, making an album of variety, but also, sir, of quality.
“OK, I’m ready,” mutters Frank as the warm and fuzzy ‘All My Ghosts’ kicks off in a comedic false start. Ironic first words, as the album’s release had been delayed by a year, with Frank’s label American Recordings displeased by the raw sound. Eventually it was released through the eMusic service, the first album by a major artist to be distributed through the internet. The opener itself is a strong one, with a great “WOAHH-OHH-OHH” refrain and Frank’s bitchy hook of “who needs that now!, as well as some lyrics about angels mating with early women and their offspring becoming giants (obvs). ‘Back To Rome’ again has something of the Tom Petty about it, Frank’s voice raw and powerful and enthused as he yells “I believed in Cupid/I thought I’d be kissing you for all my life/Guess I’m just a little stupid…”. ‘Dog Gone’ has a great emotional sublety with its lazy, bitter soft warm and news/noose pun. ‘The King And Queen Of Siam’ is sexy and sinuous, while ‘Six Sixty Six’ is good-time country about the coming of the Antichrist, faintly reminiscent of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’.
‘Solid Gold’ finds Frank in Papa Lazarou voice, roiling and snarling over snaky coils of guitar. ‘Suffering’ is a bright and brassy and riff-bristling number, with a hint of ‘Cheap Trick’. ‘The Man Who Was Too Loud’ is sweet and playful (“Though he loved to rock and roll all these many years/He cared about the old people and the little children’s ears”) – though it might seem a nod to Frank’s own reputation for noise, in fact it’s a tribute to Jonathan Richman. Isn’t that nice? It’s an album of great energy and range – perhaps the adoption of a band name took away some of the pressure of solo life for Frank, or perhaps I just have a great affection for it, but for me it’s the one I come back to the most.
Listen to a selection of Frank Black’s music from each album in the Spotify playlist below