Here’s testament to the power of Frank Black, and particularly his original band, the Pixies. First of all, consider how fresh the Pixies still sound to this day, and how their reunion concerts are selling out every venue. There is something timeless about the Pixies, and yet, take a baby that was born when the Pixies first started recording, and they’d be twenty years old today. Hell, take one that was born when they broke up and you’d still have a fifteen year-old on your hands! And here we are at Frank Black Mark III (or IV if you’re particularly picky). Honeycomb marked a new era for Black, nee Black Francis, nee Charles Thompson. As opposed to the post-punk Pixies days, the quirkier solo years, which found him opening for They Might Be Giants, and his difficult to classify days with back-up band, the Catholics, this new era delves deeper into Americana. Gone are the obsessions with the sea, UFO’s, and dark Biblical stories, taking their places, a striking vocal resemblance to Van Morrison!
Fastman Raiderman, which is to my surprise, not a superhero comic book / buddy movie featuring the Flash and Marcus Allen, but the new double disc collection from Frank Black, is the result of six separate recording sessions, none of them particularly planned or meant to be used for an album. I suppose one could say that it all started with the recording of Honeycomb, which yielded more songs than could fit on one album. Those songs, plus random between-tour-stop sessions with the likes of Bobby Bare, Jr., Levon Helm, Steve Ferrone, Spooner Oldham, Tom Petersson, P.F. Sloan, Lyle Workman, Brooks Watson and a host of others make up this welcome addition to the Black discography. Contrary to what some might believe, the album isn’t broken up into two discs called `Fastman’ and `Raiderman.’ In fact, both of those songs appear on the first disc, and the second disc doesn’t even start the renumeration of tracks, instead picking up the numbering where the first disc left off. Whereas its predecessor was more cohesive and concise of a backcountry flavored affair, however, Fastman Raiderman is a motley crew of Americana, from blues to country to New Orleans jazz to bluegrass and even back to the rock style of Black’s early solo career.
“If Your Poison Gets You” seems like Black’s countrified ode to the events of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and it kicks off the album as the perfect segue between the last album and this more ambitious collection. “Johnny Barleycorn” will please most Black solo fans as it recalls his early solo years, which in turn, as this song does, recalls the sax soaked songs of David Bowie. The title tracks are not necessarily diametrically opposite, but they do have distinctive separate flavors. The first features a sweet Black falsetto, while the second is more of a storyteller’s song, a cautionary tale about a coalminer who loses his legs. “Dog Sleep” broadens horizons as one of the first combinations of New Orleans jazz and weird ’60s soundtrack dirge. (I can picture it perfectly fitting in with the Big Easy based Live and Let Die). The song “I’m Not Dead (I’m in Pittsburgh)” has a title that says it all in the true country / blues tradition. “Golden Shore” finds Black leaving the sandpaper out of his voice, which leads us to discover that his natural singing voice is quite good!
“In the Time of My Ruin” is solid opening to the second disc, sounding somewhat like a U2 song, albeit with the quirky rhyming of ruin with “flew in,” “brewing” and “shoe-in.” “Highway to Lowdown” is the one track that found me doing a double take to see if I was listening to the new Frank Black or an old Van Morrison album. For most of the tracks on the double disc set, comparisons to the likes of Wilco and Neil Young might not be too far off the mark. “Elijah” is another song that recalls Van Morrison as piped through his self-titled solo debut. The lyrics are some of the more personally introspective on the CD, with Black ruing his California lifestyle and pining for the days back in New England. Similarly personal views appear in “It’s Just Not Your Moment.” Some of my favorite lyrics appear in “The Real El Rey” in which he sings of going to Manchester, England and learning how to sing, and how a cold bottle of Bohemia is the best water he ever had.
I suppose turning forty might have had something to do with the sudden turn from mythology to personal introspection, but it’s a welcome change. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the quirky side of Frank Black just as much, but every artist has to do something new before their art ultimately becomes stale and unwelcome. There’s nothing unwelcome about Fastman Raiderman, a sonic smorgasbord for fans of Black in all his incarnations. For an album as broad and long as this one, it holds treasures around every corner.
Van Morrison- Pay the Devil
Frank Black- Honeycomb
Dr. John- Mercernary