It’s difficult to keep up with erstwhile Pixies frontman Black Francis (born Charles Thompson, AKA Frank Black.) As the chief songwriter with the Pixies, he was at the forefront of the “alternative” wave of modern rock in the early ‘90s. Since the Pixies split, he’s released 19 recordings, credited to Black Francis, Frank Black, Frank Black and the Catholics, Grand Duchy and now again as Black Francis, including the recently released five-disc score to the 1920 silent film The Golem.
The newest Black Francis release, Nonstoperotik, finds him working once again with frequent collaborator Eric Drew Feldman behind the boards. Pixies loyalists should take heart listening to several of the tracks. After the reunion tour in 2004, rumors flourished of a possible new Pixies CD, yet it never materialized. Based on the the sound of several tracks, perhaps some of the song ideas from those sessions are finally seeing the light of day on a Black Francis recording. Yet what’s most immediately striking about these 11 songs is that they don’t veer from Black Francis’ penchant for lo-fi electric thrash (“Lake Of Sin” and “Corrina”) balanced by hushed acoustic pop (“O My Tidy Sum” and the romantically thrilling title track).
Despite the seedy album title and the lasciviously titled song “When I Go Down On You”, the theme here is not so much overt sexual gratification as ambiguous allusions to love. As usual, his lyrics are decidedly vague, yet reveal deeper intellectual meaning with further spins. On opener “Lake of Sin”, Thompson is dealing with religious themes, as he’s been known to do. Unable to resist the temptations of life, the protagonist succumbs to his desires, while using thinly veiled analogies for sins (the kiss of the ocean upon the shore, the devil outside one’s door). The rumbling drum solo is matched in intensity by hook-laden, fiery guitar riffs. The hushed backing vocals strike an eerie resemblance to Kim Deal, harking back to the Pixies.
Black Francis quells his surf-a-rosa hankering on a rumbling cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wheels” and his own “Dead Man’s Curve”. Both evoke images of a young Gram Parsons coming of age in the Hollywood hills. A dash of funk is thrown in to the mix via the rhythmic, jazzy bounce of a Rhodes organ on “Corrina”. Add “Six Legged Man” to any Pixies playlist and no one will recognize it as a Black Francis song. Melodic yet speedy, jagged bursts of electric guitar and a pounding backbeat rhythm build to a neurotic pace by the crescendo. The song’s frenetic backbeat doubles as a metaphor for sexual innuendo, deceptively disguised in lyrics like “Can we fell the big beast / should we tell the good priest?” and “On a picnic blanket / get to pick your bon-bon.”
As for the closing triple play of eroticism, the synthesized strings and delicate piano belie the lewdness of “When I Go Down On You”, which is really a sweet ode to a loved one. Despite that the characters don’t have a lot of money or friends, he declares, “when I go down on you, when I go down on you / all things will transcend.” The schmaltzy title track is every bit the sensual ballad to coitus with a loving partner that the title suggests it is. “Cinema Star”, on the other hand, isn’t what you would think, and may in fact be the best post-Pixies song Thompson has written. In it, Black Francis the raconteur takes the listener on a dramatic journey through a secret portal under his TV, where he views a lover talking at the gym with another. Or is it he, talking directly to himself? Maybe simply, he’s fallen for the girl on the TV screen? It’s a mind-bender of song that echoes the plot of Charlie Kaufman’s cult-classic film Being John Malkovich. Pulsing guitars, riveting bass and haunting, steady percussion accentuate the twisted epilogue.
On Nonstoperotik, Francis does a lot of looking backward and inward at the same time. Not necessarily the raunchy sex album the title suggests, it finds him examining his religious roots, his rocking past, and his present state of life, cleverly guised through a veil of romantic eroticism. Furthermore, it reaffirms Black Francis’ place as a great songwriter in the rock pantheon.
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// Notes from the Road
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