Frank Black and the Catholics

[23 May 2001]

By Scott Thill

He’s Still Got It: The Man Who Was Too Loud Turns Up the Volume

“Life and death does not begin and end with the Pixies,” some drunken stooge shouted at my friends and I shortly after Frank Black and the Catholics just finished turning in an amazingly energetic performance at the Troubadour in Black’s native Los Angeles. Something compelled the man to offer his unwanted opinion a few times, and it probably was the fact that my friends and I were gushing over Black’s decision to finally embrace his past and throw some Pixies songs into his set.

For those of you who may have missed the Pixies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when Jane’s Addiction was blocking the alternative spotlight and Nirvana was just getting primed to put it out for good, now is your chance to catch up with what remains one of the most influential bands of this last, boring decade. And consider yourselves lucky, because Black has been, for whatever reason and to this date, utterly dismissive of his brilliant past. When I saw him on his first solo tour, he heckled anyone in the audience who shouted out the name of a Pixies tune. Ten years later, the immortal “Gouge Away” made its presence felt early in his set, second song, to be exact.

All of which may be superfluous to the rest of the ticket-buying public who may have purchased his recent exercise in Rolling Stones craftsmanship, Dog in the Sand, or might have come along too late to distinguish him from the seminal Pixies. But it sure was hard to ignore how the volume, intensity, and emotion of the crowd surged anytime he played a chord, mind you, a chord from a Pixies staple—such as the E minor which precedes the newly-appreciated (with some thanks to David Fincher’s Fight Club) “Where is My Mind”. To be truthful, it was impossible to ignore, and the fact that Black has come to engage this hard but honest truth is both refreshing and evident. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have teased his audience with a blistering version of “Gouge Away” early and closed the set with the reverie-inducing “Where is My Mind?”

I can’t give away all of the Pixies songs he played because it might detract from what he’s trying to accomplish with his solo projects and, as a fan of the man’s sheer songwriting talent and amazing creative scope, I’d like to be sensitive to his desire to still be appreciated for his present exploits.

Ah, the hell with that!

To the audience’s sheer ecstasy, Black and Co. turned in a breathtaking, humorous and spirited version of “Mr. Grieves”, one of the best tracks off of the Pixies’ classic, Dootlittle, and then one-upped the ante by rolling with the old-school “Nimrod’s Son”—a song that even the Pixies didn’t play too much after Bossanova and Trompe Le Monde hit the stores—from their first album, Come On Pilgrim. That’s four, people, count ‘em, four Pixies tunes! For a guy who may have been turning in a self-referential criticism when he called himself “The Man Who Was too Loud” on Frank Black and the Catholics, and who has eschewed any Pixies songs for close to ten years, that is a major breakthrough.

Ok, so you’ve read close to 500 words and not a single one of them talks about anything else besides the Pixies. Well, that is how important it was to the audience, people, and this is the truth. The thing that Black may have not either understood or cared about in his earlier solo career is that the audience needed continuity, a link from their Pixies worship to his highly diverse and self-conscious solo exploits, and he refused to work on that level, favoring instead what amounted to a clean break with his past. That plan, fair, necessary, or pragmatic, backfired somewhat; some fans stuck with him, while others took his dismissal of the Pixies with contempt.

Which is too bad, because regardless of whether the man calls himself Black Francis or Frank Black, he is still one of America’s most unique and creative songwriters, and his Troubadour appearance was a great opportunity to get a feel for the broad sweep of what he’s accomplished. Besides the Pixies songs, Black tore through a slew of songs from his solo projects, all of the Catholics albums, as well as some inspired covers.

Like Tom Waits’ carnivalesque “Black Rider”, which Black ripped through with punk aplomb, sending the Waits fans in the audience into a self-satisfied frenzy, while the rest just slammed along for the ride. It was an interesting revisionist turn, one found with equal weight and gravitas in Black’s re-interpretation of his own jangly “Six-Sixty-Six”, off of Frank Black and the Catholics. He simply tore that song apart with Sonic Youth or Black Sabbath’s scalpel: it was pure feedback, booming noise, and ferocious howls.

Which brings me to the final point of the rebirth of the Black Francis still inside Frank Black’s frame, one who still is cranking out musical proficiency and raw energy like most of us crank out carbon dioxide.

He still has the howl.

If you’re a Pixies fan, and you followed them around the country like I did back in the day, you know what I mean. If you’re not, listen to “Rock Music”, from Bossanova, or “The Sad Punk” from their last album, Trompe Le Monde. It’s that cavernous bellow that can fill an auditorium with pure, disorienting catharsis, the one Pixies fans waited on as they jumped in place, possessed with anticipation.

Black howled through almost all of his songs—the ones which were not meant to be slow songs, that is—and the result was crystalline bliss. This is not the Frank Black found on the hard-to-spot Live in Paris disc, who jokes his way through most of the tunes, never fully blasting them out like everyone knows he can. This is the Frank Black that everyone who loved the ferocity and threat found in Black Francis’ vocal stylings has been waiting for.

The man is back and he’s still on the attack. Black Francis, meet Frank Black.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/black-frank/