I have to admit, I lost the plot to Frank Black’s career a few years ago, somewhere around the 20th or 21st Catholics album, followed by the Pixies reunion (pretty much “meh” from me once it was clear they weren’t going to make any new music), so I missed his recent turn to country, folk and blues-tinged music. Which means I was rather surprised by Fast Man Raider Man, Black’s new two-disc, 27-song set, where instead of the usual buzzsaw howl, I heard a more laid back singer kick things off on “If Your Poison Gets You”.
As a career recreation, it’s not a bad choice. There was always a solid voice hiding behind the screaming, and you could hear a love for much more than just punk and alternative music even in the earliest Pixies songs. Add in an impressive list of sideman—from the Band’s Levon Helm, Buddy Miller, Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick, and others who spent time in Motown, Stax, and at Muscle Schoals—and you have a collection with an interesting pedigree and impeccable pieces.
So why am just as “meh” about this project?
For starters, folk and country are harder to pull off than they seem. Oh sure, Black talks a good game throughout, making references to the land, the dirty jobs many have done, and the appeal of the open road. Yet, I never even remotely believe what Black is saying. “Have you been to the fields?” he asks at the beginning of “Johnny Barleycorn”. Why, yes, Frank, I have. Have you? It doesn’t feel like it.
And while the players here are quite impressive, Black often doesn’t give them much to do. Some of the songs stay in the head (including the aforementioned “Johnny Barleycorn”), but others come and go without registering on the brain at all. It works best when Black adds in the eccentric twists that have always marked his best work. The boozy, bluesy vibe of “I’m Not Dead (I’m in Pittsburgh)” fits in perfectly with the I-don’t-need-you-but-I-still-want-you story that Black tells. “You Can’t Crucify Yourself” has a nice Neil-Young vibe and another heartsick lyric, perfect for wallowing in your beer. Other tunes explore other parts of Americana with varied results. “Elijah” sounds like Van Morrison being backed up by the Band, though mainly in a good way. Still, much of the second disc slips into a generic rock n’ soul vibe, making it hard to keep the songs straight, or interest high.
There is certainly enough solid material here for an album, but Black has committed one of the cardinal sins of modern music: this is too damn long. Did he not listen to any albums before heading down this path? Country collections, like punk rock records (you know, like those classic Pixies records), are best when they are half an hour or shorter. A simple 10-song collection would have done just as well as the overlong 27-song set he issued. (While I’m on the topic, I would support Federal legislation to limit all albums to 45 minutes or less. Just say no to musical bloat!)
Frank Black is trying to forge new directions for his music instead of sitting on his past laurels. Still, one would think an old hand like this would recognize what is great, what is OK and what should remain in the tape boxes.
// Notes from the Road
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