As his last name implies, Frank Black is built for noir.
Once the brains behind the seminal yet deceased pop-punk outfit, Pixies, he is continually, relentlessly haunted by his past. He's always stuck in the middle of a brutal crossfire: Pixies fans want his hide because he won't turn his inner Black Francis loose and the Frank Black fans want the Pixies fans and their attendant nostalgia wiped off the face of the earth. He's always on the run, touring constantly to satisfy both the ceaseless wanderlust that provides his impressively layered lyrics with their subject matter and the more boring but worldly need to pay the bills that the Pixies' vaults can't cover.
His songs delve deep into political and civic corruption and marginalia (lifting as easily from Mike Davis' City of Quartz as Bowie lifted the Pixies' Doolittle-era songcraft for his latest album), roadside attractions, Americana, film, bars, drugs, alcohol and onward. Sometimes he even tosses in a few hidden messages in the form of acrostics and anagrams (interested parties can check out Dog in the Sand's "Robert Onion", Teenager of the Year's "Speedy Marie", "Valley of Our Hope" on the import version of Pistolero, the Pixies' "Ana" from Bossanova, and on and on).
He's also got more than a bit of Thomas Pynchon in him, as well. His songs are so jam-packed with cultural allusion and interrogation that you need a lyrical companion to make sense of it all -- if you were so inclined, that is. But if you wanted to simply kick back and drop the laser on a couple of densely stuffed discs filled with a host of eye-opening songcraft, you could do much, much worse than Black Letter Days and Devil's Workshop.
Say what you want about the man, the one thing he isn't is complacent. Recording straight to two-track has given Black the ability to stop-and-drop his tunes no matter where he is at the moment -- which is cool given that he's often in so many different places. While other bands struggle with elaborate marketing manuevers and ridiculously bloated budgets (Korn? Michael Jackson? Anyone on MTV?), Frank has seized the means of production and decided to commit his creativity to memory without the added annoyance of having to fine-tune himself to death (to the chagrin of some so-called "critics", who, missing the point entirely, panned Black's latest releases for being incomplete). The result is a 29-song salute to independent music-making, and a rollicking good time, too.
Being the shorter disc of the two, Devil's Workshop offers a quicker glimpse into what Frank is up to on his myriad Kerouackian journeys across the American culturescape. One of the collection's finest tracks, "Bartholomew" is a jaunty rocker recalling the Sticky Fingers-era Stones' terrirtory he planted his flag in with Dog in the Sand's "I've Seen Your Picture" and "Hermaphroditos". Reportedly written and recorded in the same day, it exhibits enough of Frank's still sobering vocal sneer to satisfy some Pixies (and Stones) afficionados. Same with "Heloise", a "Cactus"-like creeper about the famed 12th century nun's illicit affair with intellectual Peter Abelard that ended in the latter's castration and ther former's depressing destiny "serving the priests" that "took [her] only boy".
Like I said, heady stuff, Stones or no Stones.
Devil's Workshop is packed with such nuggets. "His Kingly Cave" is an eerie, addictive ditty about a group whose experimentation with hallucinogens leads them into a Gothic nightmare rivaling that of Ken Russell's film of the same name. "Velvety", a song Black wrote when he was fifteen that had an alternative, instrumental life as a Pixies B-side for Bossanova's "Dig For Fire", is an introductory kicker that sets the roots rock tone for the rest of the album until the anthemic "Fields of Marigold", a slow-burning finale featuring the album's rawest guitar work, tosses off its hat before going succumbing to death's "numb[ness]". It's bracing set of songs, one that rivals the critically lauded Dog in the Sand.
Which you think would make some reviewers jealous, not disdainful, of Black's output on both Devil's Workshop and its more lengthy doppleganger, Black Letter Days. Because, trust me, his fans are losing zero sleep over the fact that he matched Dog in the Sand's versatility on only one of his two releases: they're simply ecstatic that, when Devil's Workshop is concluded, they've got another brand new set of tunes (eighteen of them!) to spin.
And Black Letter Days is no slouch. Sure, there's some filler here and there but it's far from a Frank Black B-sides collection. The traveling troubadour's dual take on Tom Waits' "Black Rider" is a bouncy blast -- although not as bracing as it is live, where Frank really turns his lungs loose -- jumping from the first version's carnivalesque thump to second's lounge-lizard surf sounds in the blink of an eye.
The rest of the album bounces too, like a transient from geography to geography, stopping off to offers its praises of the paradisiacal Left Coast ("California Bound", "End of Miles), its poignant remembrance of polluted pasts ("Jet Black River", which displays Black's formidable lyrical craftwork i.e. "Revealing caffeine ghosts/And giving up its gasoline/I think I see the stacks of my home blow/sweet memories of dirty monochrome"), and, of course, the unsurpassed complexity of love and desire ("I Will Run After You", "Jane the Queen of Love", "How You Went So Far"). Indeed, transit seems to be less Frank's thematic arsenal than his creative obsession, his chief metaphor for much of what ails the new millenium's American nightmare.
And while this may seem too analytical for some listeners (although perhaps not Frank's devoted fan base), the man has been inspiring this kind of critical commentary for years. After all, who else uses the term, "choragic", in his songs? That's the kind of fun you can have listening to Frank Black's work. When spinning the riff-heavy "1826", you can guess at the context with aplomb -- is it about the Mexican resistance to colonization in Texas or James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans, published that same year? -- while you're bobbing your head to its dual guitar solos.
And while the high lonesome road music of Black Letter Days can wear thin at times, everything at least seems to fit. If you get tired of the sound of pedal steel guitar -- and what Pixies' fan doesn't? -- there's always "Cold Heart of Stone" or "Jane the Queen of Love", songs that will have you dusting off your vinyl copies of Goat's Head Soup. While Black's seventies Stones worship may be accidental, it's nevertheless ubiquitous, down to the Keith Richards-like backing vocals on "Jane".
Besides, although no one would have said this but the diehards back in the early '90s, after you've done the Pixies, where else there to go but backwards, to rock's tangled but rewarding roots? I woulnd't be surprised to see Black tackling the real folk blues next. Which ought to be interesting.
Let's be clear about something: if you haven't already figured it out, Frank Black shares little relation to Black Francis. So if you're looking for "The Sad Punk", you're not gonna find him. But you will find a jaunty slice of American rock's past rendered in its native elements: guitars, pianos, drums, bass and not much else.
Just the fundamentals, man.