[9 June 2009]
When a great singer-songwriter quits his regular band to start a project with his wife, that’s when we know for sure that it’s safe to stop listening. It’s not that married couples are incapable of making good music together. It’s just that when a great artist brings his or her spouse into the fold, it’s almost always subtraction by addition. After all, said spouse didn’t earn a spot in the band. They’re there thanks to matrimonial nepotism, plain and simple.
Would we know Yoko Ono’s name if John Lennon never fell under her spell? Most likely not. Does the name Linda Eastman ring a bell? Probably not. It wasn’t until her husband, Paul, lent her his name that she got famous.
The reason a talented person chooses to make music with her or her spouse is mostly a matter of convenience. And I have little doubt that’s why Black Francis or Francis Black or whatever name he’s putting in his press releases these days chose to form Grand Duchy with his wife, Violet Clark. Now the pair has given us the first full-length fruit of their collaboration, the tellingly titled Petits Fours.
This is a record of minor ambitions. It’s short not just in length, but in stature. You probably had to make a special effort to find out it existed. In fact, you may not have known it existed until you encountered this review. In spite of its slightness, it grabs your attention with a foot-stompin’, garage rockin’ opener, “Come On Over To My House”, wherein Francis, in a deep, guttural growl, entreats the listener to “Come on over to my house / I’ll make you buckets of tea,” before reaching a earth-shaking finish that finds Francis howling in his trademark animal squall.
By the time the listener finishes track three, “Fort Wayne” he could be forgiven for thinking he’s happened upon a lost Pixies album. Named for a sleepy northern Indiana rust belt town that your author once lived in, “Fort Wayne” is an ineffably sad-sounding acoustic pop song. Croons Francis in a sweetly alien soprano, “Once I was playin’ / down in Fort Wayne / Lost in the grain / Know what I’m sayin? / Well like I was sayin’...” Over his simple acoustic guitar strums, the song conjures an almost overwhelming feeling of tear-inducing nostalgia – and not just because it sounds like an old Pixies track. It’s a veritable gem of a song, and a happy reminder of the kind of magic Francis is capable of when he plays to his strengths: slightly askew pop melodies that beguile you with their simplicity.
Unfortunately, the bliss doesn’t last long. Clark has a part in this thing too, and her entrance occurs with all the grace of a Rockette wearing greased boots. It’s not that Clark can’t sing (although her voice isn’t anything special, and at its best sounds a lot like the singer from Veruca Salt). But she lacks a certain gravitas that’s necessary—or should be necessary—when sharing the stage with a heavyweight like Francis. She’s out of her league here, and it’s the listener who loses.
The blame for this mostly lackluster effort doesn’t belong exclusively to Clark. As good as Francis is on “Come Over To My House” and “Fort Wayne”, he’s unfortunately mediocre throughout the rest of the album. It doesn’t help that Clark’s affection for ‘80s synth pop lays the sonic foundation for much of Petits Fours, and it also doesn’t help that as it continues, Francis cedes an increasing amount of lead singing duties to his wife. Finally, it doesn’t help that all of us who love Francis for his past accomplishments with the Pixies can’t help but view Clark as a Kim Deal replacement. Undoubtedly, Clark foresaw this conundrum when she signed up for Grand Duchy. And perhaps that’s why its largely her who drives Petit Fours into anti-Pixie synth pop territory. Unfortunately, she’ll also be the one who drives all but the most diehard Black Francis fans away altogether.