Frank Black and the Catholics: Dog in the Sand

Frank Black and the Catholics
Dog in the Sand
What Are Records?

It always happens once you commit yourself to something like a “Best of XXXX” list. You stumble across something, be it album, book, or film, that you would have included in a heartbeat, if only. If only it had come your way sooner, if only it had been released just a month earlier, etc. Had I pilfered, found, bought, or received a copy of Dog in the Sand, the latest offering from Frank Black and the Catholics, just a little bit sooner, then one of the worthy discs that did make it onto my list would have taken a spill into the unappreciated glory of spot #11 on the Top Ten.

It doesn’t matter if you never listened to, or liked, the Pixies. It doesn’t matter if you passed over the three Frank Black solo albums, or the previous two by Frank Black and the Catholics. Dog in the Sand is the kind of album that gain converts in droves. I was a fan of the Pixies, not a devoted worshipper like some, but their brilliance and impact was obvious to me. I only caught snippets of Black’s solo work, and missed entirely the previous albums he recorded with the Catholics (Frank Black and the Catholics and Pistollero). If Dog in the Sand is an indicator of what I’ve missed, I’m going to have to check out the back-catalog.

From what I’ve learned in the media kit, this album might feature a sound unlike the tunes of the past (forgive my ignorance fans and artists alike!), but if this is new, then they should think about sticking with it. On top of Black’s prolific sense of soundscape and texture, the addition of piano and Wurlitzer electric piano from guest-Catholic Eric Drew Feldman, guest-Catholic guitarist Dave Philips, and regular-Catholic guitarist Rich Gilbert’s use of the pedal steel guitar give this a rich, American West, enveloping sound. From the opening bars of “Blast Off” to the closing moments of “Dog in the Sand”, this is an arresting album that doesn’t let go of your attention.

I couldn’t help but draw comparisons as I listened, although every time I tried to come up with an approximation something would defy me. That, in my opinion, is the hallmark of a great album. Strains of Johnny Cash, most definitely, other Western-tinged rock bands like Havana 3 A.M., and of course, the Pixies, keep bleeding through, but Black’s ability to change gears, and find subtleties within a general sound, make this a chameleon of the desert.

Black’s wit and intelligence are as sharp as ever, even if the total meanings of his lyrics remain as mysterious and open to interpretation as ever. Witness the ending verses from “Blast Off”: “And when we get there the Irish in me is gonna claim it for France / I’m in a Beckett trance” or the final line from “The Swimmer”: “In division pelagic you were coragic.” I had to look up the word “zugzwang” from the delightfully obtuse “Robert Onion” (it’s a chess move in which a player is forced to make an disadvantageous move that often results in the loss of a piece). I don’t even want to guess what “Hermaphraditos” is really about, although it strangely made me think of Marilyn Manson from Mechanical Animals. But even on the simple songs like “Stupid Me”, one of the songs that sounds distinctly countrified in a Cash-like way, Black’s emotional voice gives the comparatively light lyrics a weight that keeps the listener in its fold.

By far the strongest song on this disc has to be “St. Francis Dam Disaster”. Referring to an actual event in 1928 when a dam burst in Southern California and killed over 500 people along the downstream path of the river that it contained, the song also works on various levels of biographical irony. As anyone who knows the Pixies knows, Frank Black’s previous moniker was Black Francis. The idea of a St. Francis dam bursting has a particular salience given Black’s own past identity. Then there’s the song’s correlation to the classic Pixies tune, “Wave of Mutilation”. I’m not sure if there’s an intentional self-referentiality (although I wouldn’t put it past Black), but the focus of “St. Francis Dam Disaster” is less on the event than it is on a characterization of the wall of water itself and its urge to meet the sea.

The song also is a counterpoint to the rocking guitar of “Wave of Mutilation” in its almost dead-on Chris Rea stylings. Maybe it’s coincidental, maybe not, but I laughed. And even if we strip away all of these conjectures, it’s a flat-out amazing song.

At times I found myself questioning whether Black is simply trying to further his distance from the Pixies or whether he’s just found a new direction, but whatever the case may be, Frank Black and the Catholics are a force unto their own. Joey Santiago from the Pixies does turn up to help out on a few tracks, but this isn’t the surfer rock from the Pixies heyday by a long shot. This is a trip to Mexicali in a boat of a car with a bottle of tequila, some dark sunglasses, and a trailer full of Southwestern instruments to create the theme music. Or it’s American Britpop. Or it’s just another rock album by one of the most inventive men in the game, with a full accompaniment of talented and versatile musicians. This album wasn’t edited — at all. Instead it was recorded straight to two-track and you can’t tell even once.

So this album didn’t make it into my Top 10 for 2000. But its US release date of 30 January 2001 means that it’s already in the running, and will probably stay there barring some amazing records to come, for Top 10 of 2001.