This review really needs to be two album reviews. There are two discs included in the package of FrankBlackFrancis and they are about as different as different can be. One encompasses the name Black Francis, featuring a pre-Pixies recording of songs that would make up Come on Pilgrim and Surfer Rosa, played by a young Charles Thompson on the acoustic guitar. The second disc encompasses Frank Black, a far different artist than his similar namesake, even though they are the same person. But since they come packaged together, I’ll try to make it one simple album review.
Black explains in the liner notes of the album why he chose to make the release a double disc with all new recordings of Pixies songs. He says that the original acoustic tape was “not a planned performance, a little casual, and very bootleg in sound quality. Sure, the uberfans would be happy enough about the content, but we both felt that a potential new fan might feel a bit ripped-off.” Well, I am one of those uberfans of the Pixies and I am extremely happy with the first disc of FrankBlackFrancis. “The Holiday Song,” one of my all-time favorites has never sounded better raw and stripped down as it is on this demo. “Caribou,” “Broken Face” and an early “Subbacultcha” are also huge standouts. At times Francis talks to the producer, Gary Smith, telling him how each song would play out when the other band members would be present the next night when they would being recording Come on Pilgrim at Fort Apache Studios. It’s an intimate and revealing look at the making of a seminal EP and album in post-punk history and well worth the money for any Pixies fan.
I’ve made no bones about the fact that I am not a huge fan of Frank Black’s solo work. His first self-titled album was inspired, Teenager of the Year had its moments, but with The Cult of Ray he lost me forever. Friends have tried to ply me with Dog in the Sand and Black Letter Days but I wasn’t having it. His new sound left me cold and I just couldn’t whip up the excitement for the Catholics that I had for Kim Deal, Joey Santiago and David Lovering. In the liner notes to the new record Black says, “I realize some fans or critics might feel like I’m messing with the gospel here,” and he’s right. Maybe he thought by saying it or writing it, he might diffuse any kind of criticism of the second record, but these songs are indeed gospel to a lot of people and have one form and one form only. But that didn’t stop Frank Black. With the help of Andy Diagram and Keith Moliné, a.k.a. Two Pale Boys, Black rerecords some of the Pixies finest songs. They are spare and electronic and most left me feeling colder than his previous solo albums.
Sure, there were some exceptions, such as “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” which actually sounds pretty good in this format, and “The Holiday Song” which is at least interesting with its electronic horns, but “Where Is My Mind?” and “Velouria” just became horrible parodies of what they once were. Frank Black has succumbed to George Lucas Syndrome. Rather than leave a composition well enough alone and how it was meant to be remembered, George and Frank took Star Wars and Pixies songs respectively, and tinkered with them trying either to make them better or at least different. Picasso never went back to Guernica to touch it up every few years, nor did Leonardo Da Vinci try to fix Mona Lisa‘s eyebrows. Remember, this is simply my opinion, and others might really dig the new recordings just as some really like the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. So don’t take my word for it.
There is another thing that really bothered me about FrankBlackFrancis‘ second disc, which is that Black sings a track that was normally performed by Kim Deal, that being “Into the White.” It’s bad enough to `mess with the gospel’ on the songs he vocalized, but to try and substitute for Kim seems wrong. As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of the new `techno-Pixies.’ Certain bands are meant to have remixes, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and New Order to name just a few, but the Pixies are not one of them.
FrankBlackFrancis is a worthy effort, however, and worthy of purchase for fans of the Pixies and for Frank Black. The first disc is a historical landmark in a way. It is a look at an influential band in the making, and the songwriter who brought them to fame. The second disc is a look back on that fame from the place where that songwriter is now. While I might not like that particular place, I can understand its significance and that change happens. The Pixies couldn’t have gone on forever, and their current incarnation, albeit with every original member, is nothing more than a one-off, producing only live recordings and a long tour. Every once in a while I hear a Frank Black solo effort that I think is decent and that’s just how I feel about the second disc. There are a few decent versions of old favorites, but for the most part Black has, in his own words, `messed with the gospel.’ But if faith has taught us nothing else, it’s that people can be redeemed. Hallelujah, amen.
The Pixies- Complete B-Sides
David Bowie- Bowie at the Beeb
The Clash- Black Market Clash