[9 January 2012]
Wednesday evening in Albany, New York, I’m at Valentine’s to see the inaugural performance of the duo Paley & Francis. During the course of their set, they will play their (at the time) forthcoming album in its entirety. Two weeks earlier, I had gotten the album and listened to it a few times. Two weeks into the future, I’ll discuss it with one of the co-creators over the phone.
An album like this is, in theory, a music critic’s wet dream: a teaming of the frontman from one of indie rock’s most beloved groups with a semi-obscure singer-songwriter who has been around for decades without getting too much mainstream exposure and has therefore remained “pure” in the eyes of the rock media cognoscenti. That hits a number of pleasure centers in my little rock writer brain, and for the most part the album doesn’t fail to deliver on this half-imagined promise.
The two men in question are Reid Paley, a Brooklyn, New York-based singer-songwriter, and Black Francis of the Pixies. On the foundation of a mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work, Paley and Francis have collaborated quite a bit in the past and have since become good friends who spend a lot of time busting each other’s chops on stage. (After they play “The Last Song”, Francis says “You sensitive mofo,” to which Paley replies “Hey! I’m fuckin’ sensitive over here!” Later on, they seem to have two separate sides of two conversations when Paley gets talking about the Bangles for some reason and Francis responds “I don’t watch any sports.”) They started writing songs together about eight years ago by Paley’s recollection and have released the results on a number of Francis’ albums under the Frank Black moniker; they’ve toured together, with the Reid Paley Trio opening for Black’s band on a number of tours; Black even produced one of Paley’s albums. This is the first time they’ve worked together as full partners, and it’s a partnership that works pretty well. The two of them seem to share an aesthetic approach of writing jaunty little ditties that read much darker than they sound. Unless you were listening closely to the words, “Ugly Life” sounds like a pretty cheery number (“I kinda like how we sell the chorus,” says Francis after they play it live), and “The Last Song” sounds like some kind of country/doo-wop hybrid. The most I hear from either of them regarding what label they themselves would attach to the project is when Francis, in between songs at the show, says, “Well, we’re very ... indie ... I guess ...”, as if he hasn’t given much thought to genre (as is his prerogative as a composer).
Over the phone, Paley informs me of the exact nature and level of their collaboration, how they hung out in his apartment over the course of three days when Francis was in town with “the old band”, as they’re apparently referred to, and worked up the musical arrangements for the 10 songs together from whatever fragments they may have had beforehand and subsequently split them up, five apiece, to work out the lyrics. Whoever wrote the lyrics sang the song, and the album therefore alternates with Francis/Paley lead vocals throughout. They tend to draw inspiration from the same small time period of rock music, the post-Elvis-being-drafted and pre-Beatles era when rock music didn’t really know what to do with itself. It was during this time period that we got most of the good doo-wop, rockabilly, surf rock, and country music. It’s all these types of music that Paley and Francis dabble in here, and there is very little, if anything that they take from rock’s golden age of the mid- to late 1960s. The result is that things are kept pretty simple, or “Deconstructed”, as the title of one song puts it (after a false start of this song at the show, Francis remarks pithily “I deconstructed it”), as they would have to be when you’ve only got three days to hammer out an album’s worth of songs.
These more simple forms that their songs resemble are reflected in the simple production; there is no studio trickery to speak of, and there are no computerized instruments anywhere on the album, not that any of that is what you would hear on the recent solo albums of either man. The songs were recorded very, very quickly in a Nashville studio (Paley excitedly tells me that it’s the same studio where Steve Cropper, legendary guitarist for another touchstone of influence, Booker T and the MGs, cut his new album). It was recorded with the aid of legendary Muscle Shoals players Spooner Oldham and David Hood, who bring some authenticity to the style of music being played since it draws so heavily from the good old rock and roll that came out of the studio at a time when much of the music scene revolved around being as high as a kite. (Paley recounts to me how these were the guys who played on Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally”. That should give a bit of an indication as to the sound they were going after, and although the aesthetic of both Paley and Francis at first seems far removed from a song like that, Paley assures me that neither of them are “trying to be weird”, they’re just trying to be themselves). These were two of the guys who kept things grounded. And they’re pretty damn good at what they do; Oldham gets in some tasteful piano comping on “On the Corner” and gets a few organ breaks elsewhere, and Hood’s bass deftly navigates the changes with veteran confidence. There’s even a bit of horns on “Praise”. A nice little touch.
The fact that this was recorded very rapidly sometimes serves as a detriment though, as evidenced by the slightly out of tune acoustic guitar on “Crescent Moon”. These were apparently all first takes, and I imagine there was very little rehearsal, in keeping with the quick, off the cuff manner that produced this kind of music in the late 1950s/early 1960s. In this case, a little more preparation would’ve served the ultimate product better.
The production, while admirable for its stripped down, basic approach, has its problems. The percussion tends to be overly simple throughout, and furthermore seems to be buried in the mix at points. And unfortunately, Oldham’s keyboard work is also occasionally mixed too low. The guitars and vocals are highest in the mix, and all other instruments are a bit deeper, which is a shame since a more tempered mix would serve the songs, giving them more energy and more bite, infusing them with more of a rock feel that they seem to be craving. As it is, the production makes the album much more subdued than it has to be or should be. With these kinds of songs, I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear Francis pull off one of his trademark “help-I’m-being-tortured” howls of pure anguish, but neither was I expecting something quite so mellow. Even the most up-tempo numbers are very restrained.
Largely, despite the fact that Paley and Francis are not touring with Oldham and Hood, I found the renditions of these songs from their live performance (or their “first public rehearsal” as Paley put it) preferable. They were delivered without the keyboards, but with a tight, powerful, and, more importantly, very rocking rhythm section. That approach, to my ears at least, was more energetic and more energizing. Also, the live band is tighter since that is the rhythm section that Paley normally works with. So part of me wishes they had just gone into the studio with the ensemble I saw on stage.
Another small point that bothered me about the actual album, rather than the live show, is that there are a few points on the album where the guitars don’t sound very good, specifically the repeated riff on “Seal”, which sounds kind of like the Shaggs, a band that embodies the “so bad, it’s good” school of rock, but here is just annoying. The guitars in the show sounded great; Francis had a Vox amp and Paley had a vintage Fender, both of which sounded wonderful and made for some sweet-sounding guitar tones. On the album, they sound a little muted.
Francis is in good form throughout the album, except for the aforementioned “Seal”, a song which seems overly simple to me. Other songs, like “Curse” or “Magic Cup” are a much better representation of his abilities as a singer and songwriter. These two, in particular are probably his best on the album and showcase his bag of tricks. For instance, there are religious references and ambiguity aplenty in “Magic Cup”: “You all sing about Jesus with your sticky pine cone / But when it starts to please us, that’s when the ladies moan.” Or how about the threats of violence that crop up in his songs from time to time, like “I’ll bring down my foot on your daisy chain / I’ll have a drink from your jugular vein” from “Curse”? My favourite part of Francis’ songwriting has always been his employment of rhythm, where he will use an odd number of measures in a phrase, or perhaps cut an occasional measure in half, which he does here. It definitely helps to take what would otherwise be a relatively conventional song structure and give it a nice, unexpected twist.
Francis’ voice has always been an acquired taste. His voice is not technically virtuosic, never has been and never will, but, if you like it, you won’t find anything wrong with it here. Francis may himself be acknowledging his limitations by more “reciting” than singing on certain parts of the album, like the verses of “Curse” and “Praise”.
I really enjoy Reid Paley’s voice throughout, a slightly gritty baritone with a lovely and tasteful vibrato. He occasionally has the style, not necessarily the sound, of a classic balladeer from the Tin Pan Alley era, which makes hearing him sing things like “This song always has an end / You know we’ll only piss it all away” all the more entertaining and amusing. You can close your eyes and see him smirking through a cloud of smoke in some dive, playing the lounge act and sipping a cocktail, laughing silently as he sings about the very absurdity of life and his own station. This is most evident in “The Last Song”, where he seems to acknowledge how such an approach is practically a dead end unless played tongue-in-cheek: “Can you tell me it’s just another tune? / We’ve seen it all before, the moon, the spoon and June.”
His backing vocals on Francis’ songs are another high point of the album for me. He produces a warbling, semi-howl that sounds like he’s in a straitjacket but can’t be too upset about it because he knows he did something wrong. Imagine if Boris Karloff, the legendary actor from the old Universal horror movies, had attempted a legitimate singing career. That’s what Paley’s voice sounds like to me. I mean that as a deep compliment regardless of how weird it sounds.
The comparison is appropriate since, as I mentioned, Paley and Francis both enjoy a heavy helping of black humour. Imagine a couple of weird uncles, the kind who liked to wake you up with a rubber snake in your bed, making an album together. It’s some very dark subjects like death and hatred being tackled with the aplomb of a sick joke. Gallows humour at its finest, especially in “Ugly Life”, where they open the song with Beach Boys harmonies and sing lines like “Wait for the party to begin / Enjoy your ugly life.” A wicked notion, but one that I imagined both men delivering with beaming smiles as they recorded it. However, the final line on the album, from Paley’s “Happy Shoes” is “Live another day,” as if letting you in on the joke (“It’s more resigned than optimistic,” Paley tells me).
And I must admit, it brought me a little grin, like most of the album. This is far from being some sort of life-changing experience, but it is a fun listen if you can handle the grimness piled on top of some musical forms that aren’t particularly “fashionable”. I recommend it. While the production might be just a little too loose, the songs are just the right fit.