Frank Black & the Catholics
By Josh Noel
The question isn't how Charles Thompson IV will be remembered--it's what name he'll be remembered by. It could be Black Francis, the name he used as front man for the Pixies. It could be Frank Black, the name he adopted when he went solo. For the indecisive, it could be Frank Black Francis. But how he will be remembered is already obvious: as one of the premier architects of a generation of rock that altered the course of the music industry. In the mid-80s Black (as we'll call him here) wrapped sweet melodies in jagged packages: his songs had the energy of punk but were infinitely more interesting; they had the structural smarts of pop but exorcised a few more demons. Throughout five equally strong albums with the Pixies, Black managed to scream and wail, well, hummably.
Black is unquestionably an icon. Kurt Cobain's admiration and admitted creative debt have already been well documented. Bob Mould has confessed that an early song he wrote with his band Sugar, "A Good Idea," was a rewrite of "Debaser," the lead track on the Pixies' Doolittle. And today Modest Mouse's shrieking vocals and heart-stopping tempo shifts border on copyright infringement. But the benefits of his stature seem to have been lost with the name change. The posthumous Death to the Pixies, a two-disc compilation of live tracks and greatest hits released in late 1997, has outsold Black's last two albums.
Black's solo work hasn't been as bad as the sales figures might imply--though it has been spotty. Coupled with the work former Pixies bassist Kim Deal was doing with the Breeders at the time, 1993's Frank Black almost made the demise of the Pixies tolerable. It was broad and strange, peppering the predictable roar with antithetical dashes of acoustic guitar and keyboard--an interesting step the Pixies might have taken but didn't. But the next record, Teenager of the Year, seemed half-baked, and remains memorable mostly for its cover shot of Black in a prom queen's tiara, clutching a bouquet. Cult of Ray (1996), Black's final major-label release, was so uninspired that when a friend offered me his copy because he didn't like it, I passed. So did a lot of other people.
Black spent the next couple years woodshedding, reemerging with two albums in the can: Frank Black and the Catholics, which came out on the independent Spinart label last year, and Pistolero, which Spinart released in late March. Both were fueled by a radically different concept of what he wanted to accomplish. Rather than spending months in a fancy studio, tracking and overdubbing to polish his songs to a predestined conclusion, he'd recorded with a new full-time band into a two-track machine in a mere matter of days. Frank Black and the Catholics sounded raw and aggressive next to Cult of Ray, leading some hopefuls to hail the return of the Pixies. But though it quickly became Spinart's all-time best-seller, it was the worst-selling album of Black's solo career. According to SoundScan (which admittedly focuses on major retailers, to the disadvantage of small labels that use alternative sales avenues), Frank Black sold 137,000 copies, Teenager of the Year sold 92,000, Cult of Ray sold 43,000, and Frank Black and the Catholics sold 22,000.
More distressing for Black, every last one of those albums has been held up, usually for the worse, against his work with the Pixies. But the worst thing Black could have done with his solo career would have been to keep making records the way the Pixies made them. Change is why the Beatles are the Beatles, why Nirvana was far deeper than the hype, and why disparaging R.E.M. these days is difficult even if their new material doesn't stand up to their earlier stuff. It's also why Bob Mould did the right thing last year when he "retired." The former front man for Husker Du--another highly influential punk-pop band from the middle 80s--had been making the same record for almost a decade.
But Black's not ready for the glue factory yet. If Frank Black and the Catholics wasn't perfect, it was a first step into a decidedly new arena. It rocked, though it didn't quite roll--Black and his band sounded tentative, afraid to get sloppy; most of the songs plowed straight ahead for three or four minutes and then they were over. But Pistolero is dirtier than anything he's made in years, and in certain flashes of energy and presence it's almost as good as anything he's ever made. "Bad Harmony," for example, opens with a few drumbeats, then launches into a full-band blast that builds until the first verse, when everything but the electric guitar drops out; subsequent starts and stops shift the weight around like the bead in a hula hoop, sending the song rocketing around your head for the duration. Black even screams a little, a bone to the old fans. Some of the other tracks sputter quickly and go nowhere ("I Want Rock & Roll"), and some are silly gimmicks (the dreadful "I Love Your Brain"). But the best songs on Pistolero are full of a swagger and groove that sounds more like the Stones or Neil Young than anything from the alternative era, Pixies or otherwise.
In a short explication of Pistolero on Spinart's Web site, Black writes, "I know it doesn't fit in with what's happening in the charts, on the radio, in the typical, well-produced scene, but we love this whole live recording thing. And it seems appropriate for a band like us so stuck on the guitar, which by the way is a Spanish instrument that has been around since the early 1600s for those naysayers who are so quick to damn the guitar every time there is an innovation in automated music (hey, the metronome has been with us since the early 1800s). Personally, I think pop music grown out of a computer is a great advancement that brings more people to music, both artists and patrons. But is rock dead? Such a negative place from which to ask such a pointless question." A better question might be, Are the Pixies dead? To which Pistolero fires off a hopeful "Yes, finally."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Rawlings.