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Black Francis

+ {Frank Black} + {Frank Black And The Catholics} + {Grand Duchy}

Born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, April 6, 1965, Boston, Massachusetts, BLACK FRANCIS is better known as former singer, songwriter and guitarist with alt-rock noise-meisters, PIXIES. For several years between 1986 and 1993, the indie quartet unleashed four albums, two of them “Surfer Rosa” (1988) and “Doolittle” (1989) revered by college kids and the likes of Kurt Cobain and THOM YORKE. Resurrecting a studio/live PIXIES some two decades on, the jury was out on the band’s comeback set, `Indie Cindy’.
With Francis changing his nom de plume to the rather simplified FRANK BLACK, the frontman went on to release a moderately successful eponymous solo debut in 1993, although in Britain, FRANK BLACK {*8}, reached the Top 10. Augmented by bassist/keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman (better known to fans of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART and PERE UBU) and drummer Nick Vincent; PIXIES’ guitar man Joey Santiago was a guest, BLACK re-ignited the sound of IGGY POP. Trashy and metallic with the soul of punk, `Los Angeles’, `Czar’ (apparently about activist JOHN DENVER’s wanton space travels) and `Ten Percenter’, are primeval examples of this post-grungy coda. Intended initially as a covers set, only one track made it past the cutting-room floor – The BEACH BOYS’ `Hang On To Your Ego’.
The wryly-titled follow-up double-set, TEENAGER OF THE YEAR (1994) {*7}, forged his previous Iggy-chugging template (`Freedom Rock’, et al) and carried it forward with a retro-to-grunge fuzz sound. Splitting some critics and PIXIES luddites down the middle, its 22 tracks had something for everyone; shame then that several tracks seemed a tad closer to Kurt Cobain’s vision (whose death shocked the world a month prior to this release), rather than Frank’s; `Headache’ was “Penny Royal Tea” incarnate, while with `(I Want To Live On An) Abstract Plain’, one could almost taste the teen spirit. Counterbalanced with the Beefheart-meets-Iggy `Two Reelers’ and the cod-reggae of `Fiddle Riddle’, BLACK was happy to experiment with most genres.
Remaining to appeal to his Brit fanbase and now signed to Epic Records, THE CULT OF RAY (1996) {*5}, disappointed fans who’d criticised his move from weird and wonderful to strange and straight-laced; the ballad-y `I Don’t Want To Hurt You (Every Single Time)’ and `You Ain’t Me’ had TOM PETTY written all over the grooves. But for `The Marsist’, the VERLAINE-esque `Men In Black’ (a minor hit 45) and `Punk Rock City’, the set might well’ve hit the bargain bins sooner.
A change of tact, a change of label and a change of identity led to Play It Again Sam Records releasing the man’s next venture, FRANK BLACK AND THE CATHOLICS (1998) {*6}. Retaining stalwarts from his previous set: Lyle Workman (guitar), Dave McCaffrey (bass) and Scott Boutier (drums), FB now takes on the mantle on head Stone JAGGER or J. MASCIS, his lips almost pouting to the likes of `Back To Rome’, `I Gotta Move’ and a version of Christian-country LARRY NORMAN’s `Six-Sixty-Six’.
PISTOLERO (1999) {*5} and DOG IN THE SAND (2001) {*7} both met with diminishing fanbase response, although the latter showed a more down home effort, while featuring some of his best songwriting for years; check out `Blast Off’, `St. Francis Dam Disaster’, `Robert Onion’ and `Hermaphroditos’. The fact that Santiago and Feldman were back on board was hardly a hindrance while occasional glimpses of Frank’s legendary lyrical genius suggested there was life in the old (BLACK) dog yet.
The man’s feverish creativity continued apace with the simultaneous release of both DEVIL’S WORKSHOP {*6} and BLACK LETTER DAYS {*7}. Rarely, if ever, can an artist sustain quality over such a protracted format, especially bearing in mind that the latter disc stretches to almost 20 tracks. While this, at least, might conceivably have been more focused had they been edited down to size (from over two hours), there’s a ramshackle continuity about the records that makes for strangely addictive listening. While “…Workshop” was the more sonically adrenalized of the two, both albums found BLACK’s inimitable, impenetrable muse travelling America’s stranger side roads; the companion piece resting on the shoulders of `Velvety’ (an old PIXIES B-side), `Out Of State’ and `His Kingly Cave’. Bookended by decent renditions of TOM WAITS’ `The Black Rider’, the second of these proves its worth in rockers such as `Jane The Queen Of Love’ and `1826’.
Reportedly inspired by a stint in therapy, SHOW ME YOUR TEARS (2003) {*6} was perhaps the singer’s most honest and uninhibitedly emotional set of songs. While these aren’t adjectives one would normally associate with BLACK’s oblique musical charms, and while there was still enough lyrical weirdness to placate long-time fans, the self-analysis seemed to have done his creative juices no end of good. Stock-in-trade tracks like `My Favourite Kiss’, `New House Of The Pope’ and `Everything Is New’, kept most fans happy.
With PIXIES back in circulation, the rest of us mere mortals had to make do with another FRANK BLACK solo set, HONEYCOMB (2005) {*6}. Cut live in Nashville in such hallowed company as Spooner Oldham and STEVE CROPPER, the record saw BLACK the tenacious troubadour still wrestling with end-of-marriage fallout, spilling quirky yet revealing tears over rootsy originals and covers, from the obligatory (Chips Moman & DAN PENN-scribed `The Dark End Of The Street’) to the revealing (DOUG SAHM’s `Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day’) to the whimsical (`Song Of The Shrimp’, most famously rendered by ELVIS on his “King Creole” soundtrack).
Almost a year on, BLACK delivered another set, this time another double, FAST MAN RAIDER MAN (2006) {*6}. Listening to this sprawling set one begins to think that LEONARD COHEN must’ve walked into the sessions, Frank’s raspy vox owing much to his rootsy backing players rather the PIXIES. Featuring a stellar cast from his previous set and a few “Catholics”, plus BOBBY BARE, JR., AL KOOPER, Jim Keltner, LEVON HELM, Jon Tiven, Tom Peterson (of CHEAP TRICK) and Simon Kirke (of BAD COMPANY), Frank runs a gamut of styles, although his most identifiable comes in `Johnny Barleycorn’, `In The Time Of My Ruin’ and `Fitzgerald’; folk buffs might baulk at `Fare Thee Well’ and EWAN MacCOLL’s `Dirty Old Town’.
Discarding his Frank Black (&/or The Catholics) for his moniker of old, BLACK FRANCIS, seemed the wise thing to do, but the angst-ridden BLUEFINGER (2007) {*7} was hardly a dream re-start. PIXIES-like in several skuzzy-rock dirges (`Threshold Apprehension’ was inspired by Dutch master artist, HERMAN BROOD, while `You Can’t Break A Heart And Have It’ paid homage to the punk-poet), rollicking cuts come by way of `Captain Pasty’, `Tight Black Rubber’ and `Lolita’. Inspired by Irish mythological hero, Cuchulainn (a man of seven fingers on each hand), the mini-set, SVN FNGRS (2008) {*6} presents itself with as many self-penned tracks; `The Seus’, `I Sent Away’ and `When They Come To Murder Me’, all worth the admission price alone.
Having performed as a musician/backing singer on BLACK’s previous efforts, wife Violet Clark was upgraded to the man’s musical subordinate and songwriting partner in alt-rock’s royalty-striven GRAND DUCHY. Probably missing a female point of view since PIXIES lass Kim Deal threw her hat into the ring for The BREEDERS in the early 90s, the wispy Violet was equal to her man’s brass-ic blasts on PETIT FOURS (2009) {*6}. Not many husband-and-wife duos have lasted the pace (SONNY & CHER, EURYTHMICS, etc.), but in songs `Come On Over To My House’, `Lovesick’ and Seeing Stars’, it looked likely this pairing might be a permanent combination. GRAND DUCHY’s LET THE PEOPLE SPEAK (2012) {*7} proved they might just be in for the long haul; a modern-day musical personae discovering different directions in Nurofen noodles like `Face’, `Dark Sparkles And The Beat’, `Geode’ and `See-Thru You’.
In between times, BLACK FRANCIS was again in circulation, NONSTOPEROTIK (2010) {*6} and a 5-disc CD (initially in limited website quantities) of a 1915-1920 German silent horror trilogy, THE GOLEM (2010) {*7} arriving just about in unison. Of the latter punctuated set released a year later – and featuring on/off sidekick Feldman – BLACK pieced together a sickly-sweet project that channelled the character’s devilish cues; `The Word’, `Astaroth’, `The Obedient Servant’, `Miriam And Florian’, et al, conjuring up images of a renaissance film that few, if any, had heard of, rather than seen. “NonStopErotik” was closer in mood to PIXIES fervour; `Dead Man’s Curve’, `Corrina’, `Six Legged Man’ and the unconnected `Cinema Star’, recalling better days when small flying creatures ruled the earth – or not, as the case may be.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2013

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