As far as band reunions go, 2004 has belonged to the Pixies. The band's world tour has been doing booming business, there's been the well-received retrospective DVD, a great best-of compilation that was a huge improvement over 1997's Death to the Pixies, and even a couple of fun new recordings in the form of the Kim Deal original "Bam Thwok", and the Warren Zevon cover "Ain't That Pretty at All". For a band as beloved as the Pixies, such overkill is actually wonderful to see, as older fans finally get to see their favorite band do so well after such an ugly split in 1992, and younger folks finally have a chance to witness for themselves just what the big deal was back between 1988-92, everyone leaving the reunion concerts blown away. So since things are going so well, how about another CD to appease the masses?
Actually, Frank Black's double-disc project, Frank Black Francis, has been in the works for well over a year, before the Pixies reunion became official. For some 16 years, Black avoided releasing a demo of Pixies songs he'd recorded solo in 1987, fearing that the tape's poor sound quality wouldn't be worth the full price of a CD. After meeting a pair of eccentric producers who called themselves Two Pale Boys in early 2003, Black had an interesting idea of what he thought would be the perfect companion disc to those '87 demos, and went to the producers with the intention of re-recording a dozen or so classic Pixies tracks. An intriguing, and audacious combination it would turn out to be: a snapshot of a then-unknown band's great songs in their infancy, accompanied by a complete deconstruction of some of that band's timeless classics. "We've messed with the gospel," admits Black in his liner notes to Frank Black Francis. Yes, he sure has, but the end result is sure to surprise many.
Recorded in the apartment of producer Gary Smith, the demo tracks have Black Francis (as he was known then) zipping through little more than a half hour's worth of acoustic versions of his Pixies material. Intended to serve as a guide for Smith, who was about to head into the studio with the band to record the Come on Pilgrim EP, Francis's performance is relaxed, as he casually runs through 15 songs, singing as if he doesn't want to disturb the neighbors, and serving up comments and instructions for Smith, humming basslines, improvising percussion, and even saying during the intro to "Caribou", "This is the one I want to sound like Hüsker Dü." Despite the informality of the recording (the phone rings during "Nimrod's Son"), it's a fun little document for fans, with better sound quality than we all expected.
As interesting as the demo disc is, Frank Black Francis is all about the "treated" disc, and while the demos CD is guaranteed to please longtime devotees, the remakes will polarize many. The Two Pale Boys duo, comprised of Andy Diagram (formerly of well-known UK '90s band James) and Keith Moline, have been given the rarest of assignments: to take a handful of very famous, much adored songs, and basically do whatever they wanted to them. All Black does on the disc is contribute vocals and acoustic guitar (as straightforward as the '87 demo), and the two producers take over, throwing caution to the wind, stripping down 13 Pixies classics to their most skeletal forms, and adding an often fascinating combination of organic instrumentation with more ambient, MIDI-triggered noise, at times echoing the great post rock band Disco Inferno. And incredibly, many of the songs work.
Though it can never replace the original, "Where is My Mind?" manages to sound even more tragically desolate, as the memorable, mournful bassline remains, but is engulfed by electronic swirls, echoes of piano and muted trumpet, and Black's vocal performance, which has a jaded tone, as if he's asking "where is my mind," knowing full well that it's long, long gone. "Caribou" is as barren as the Arctic tundra, its tinkling glockenspiel flourishes offset by menacing, spare bass tones. "Levitate Me" careens from Tom Waits style percussive cacophony, to a trumpet accompaniment by Diagram, staying surprisingly loyal to the arrangement from the Come On Pilgrim EP. Meanwhile, "Velouria" sounds dark and mournful, with a terrific vocal performance by Black, and the brass band arrangement of "Nimrod's Son" takes on the feel of a creepy New Orleans jazz dirge. The disc is far from perfect, as "Subbacultcha" takes the Tom Waits thing to an annoying extreme, "Cactus" loses all of the bite of the original, and "Planet of Sound" is transformed into an excruciating 13-minute excursion into noisy self-indulgence.
It's always interesting to see established artists take a look back at the early phases of their careers and re-interpret their older material (Bob Dylan is the unparalleled master of this), and although the remakes on Frank Black Francis stumble a little, it's for the most part quite an enjoyable little collection. Intended primarily for those who are already familiar with the Pixies' great, albeit brief, studio output, it's a great deal (sold for the price of a single disc album), and an even greater source of debate afterwards.