One of the most admirable things about Frank Black’s career arc may be the most frustrating for long-time fans: he has little regard for his legacy; or, rather, public opinion on what about that legacy should be preserved, protected, kept intact. Sure, he fronts the Pixies, and Black and company (minus, of course, Kim Deal at this point) still go out and play those songs. But the Pixies also put out Indie Cindy, an album that sounds nothing like the Pixies from a couple decades back people obsess over. His solo work similarly eschews comparison to his work with the band. Frank Black and Teenager of the Year had the same sort of wild eye and frenetic shifts, but the angles got sanded down a bit, the blasts became a bit more muted. This of course, in those two cases, still made for great records.
But when Black started recording with the Catholics, the shift from oddball indie music to traditional rock and Americana began. For a while, Black never looked back. The Complete Discography, as its title implies, covers the entirety of Black’s output with the Catholics, covering six proper albums: 1998’s Frank Black and the Catholics, 1999’s Pistolero, 2001’s Dog in the Sand, 2002’s Black Letter Day and Devil’s Workshop, and 2003’s Show Me Your Tears. This set also includes a glut of unreleased songs and b-sides, plus a disc of technical demos from the Black Rider sessions called True Blue. When you’re dealing with Frank Black, though, be ready for a denial of expectations. This set does not present the music chronologically, nor does it even keep the albums’ tracklists intact. Instead, the music across the first six discs (True Blue is on its own for the seventh) is presented alphabetically by title.
This presents nightmares for those of us a bit obsessive about the organization of our iTunes library, but this seemingly arbitrary decision actually adds an element of fascination to this box set. Rather than allowing us to pit the albums against each other — the merits of the wandering grit of Black Letter Day versus the focused clarity of Devil’s Workshop — and instead lets us consider the songs free from their original context. It makes for a new set of odd clashes, not intra-song (as with the Pixies), but inter-song.
This makes for some amazing stretches of listening. Pistolero‘s “Billy Radcliffe”, a sort of trad-rock cousin to “Alec Eiffel”, sets up nicely the shadowy jangle of “Black Letter Day”, recorded a few years later. That song leads into both versions of Tom Waits’ “The Black Rider” from Black Letter Day, the sinister swing of the rock version and the gauzy surf version. Put back to back they almost sound like different songs, but they also show the ways in which Black and the Catholics pushed at their songs, fitting them into different shapes and different textures. The two takes on “The Black Rider” are playful, almost effortless, but lead nicely into the expansive landscape of “Blast Off” from Dog in the Sand.
In moments like that run of songs, you see clear lines through the Black/Catholics discography, different explorations of rock and country and blues traditions. They sound in these moments like what they were: an intricate, sometimes bizarro bar band. But these moments also show their willingness to experiment. More than once in this set, we get multiple versions of a song back to back. Disc three opens with three versions of “Humboldt County Massacre”, a song that never ended up on a proper album. The second version, from the never-released album Sunny Sunday Mill Valley Groove Day, is the best of the bunch, slowing down its rockabilly stomp to a dustier shuffle, but each take feels unique. “Whiskey In Your Shoes” is reframed as a piano tune on an alternate take, while Show Me Your Tears‘ “Nadine” gets a saloon makeover in its alternate version, stomping along on brittle acoustic guitar and tack piano.
If the alternate takes here let us see the kaleidoscopic ways in which the band saw their songs, which upsets the notion that this band was more straightforward than Black’s other projects, other moments in the set show the vastly different poles of sound that can come out of that experimentation. The blistering, crunchy band on Pistolero‘s “I Want Rock & Roll” sounds almost nothing like the patiently lush players on “I Will Run After You” from Black Letter Day. A run from non-album lullaby “Sleep” to the wall of distorted power chords on “Smoke Up” to the barroom rumble of “The Snake” sounds downright schizophrenic. There are moments where these clashing song types sounds like progress for the band, like when the basic rock structure of early tune “Suffering” and the unreleased hazy tune “Sunny Sunday Mill Valley Groove Day both sound a bit undercooked once the dark, pristine textures of “The Swimmer” kick in.
The alphabetical ordering is unlikely to change the minds of fans about which Catholics albums are their favorites, or how this matches up to Frank Black’s solo work, but those questions seem beside the point on The Complete Discography. Here, we get a simple portrait made up of over a hundred tiny, complicated parts. It’s the portrait of a band that tried to figure out and test and push and bust up and put back together each song, one at a time. When they were written and recorded isn’t as important as the process that brought them to life. Yes, as the albums were not all uniformly strong, the tracklist here sometimes slips into a run of songs less interesting. But to pit Black and the Catholics work against some imagined notion of what a perfect discography is feels more judgmental than critical. Despite a title celebrating a whole, The Complete Discography smartly favors the moment, the song, over the career. It’s not a new concept for Frank Black.
However, if long-time fans are looking for something besides a comprehensive collection of b-sides and unreleased tracks, the last disc, True Blue, might be the gem they are looking for. These technical demos from the Black Letter Day sessions are uniformly excellent. They pare that album’s tracklist down to 12 songs, and present them as lean rockers. In a way, the album combines the charms of Black Letter Day with Devil’s Workshop, both released on the same day back in 2002. True Blue the focus and tight construction of the latter album with the exploratory edge of the former. So you get a particularly moody version of “Cold Heart of Stone”, a jangle-rock, unfussy, and excellent version of “California Bound”, a front-porch stomp take on “The Farewell Bend” and so on. The set indulges all Black’s influences — increasingly, at this point, turning towards country and blues — but melds them into a cohesive whole.
Despite being demos, True Blue sounds like a fully formed and excellent seventh album from Frank Black and the Catholics. If the box set celebrates the band’s legacy one song at a time, this final unified collection, recorded in the same time and place, might seem out of place. But it’s just another way for Black to slip away just as we’ve grasped his approach. Even if he had other higher high-water marks in his career outside his work with the Catholics, The Complete Discography suggests he pulled that slip away move most consistently, if most subtly, with this band and on these songs.