Grand Duchy: Petits Fours

This collaboration between Black Francis and his wife, Violet Clark, confirms that music made by married couples is often as unexciting as marriage itself.

Grand Duchy

Petits Fours

Label: Blackseal
US Release Date: 2009-04-14
UK Release Date: 2009-02-16

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Forty years after its initial release, one of the defining albums of US punk rock finally gets the legacy treatment it deserves.

If you ever want to start a fistfight in a group of rock history know-it-alls, just pop this little question: "Was it the US or the UK who created punk rock?" Within five minutes, I guarantee there'll be chairs flying and dozens of bloodstained Guided By Voices T-shirts. One thing they'll all agree on is who gave punk rock its look. That person, ladies, and gentlemen is Richard Hell.

Keep reading... Show less

Tokyo Nights shines a light on the roots of vaporwave with a neon-lit collection of peak '80s dance music.

If Tokyo Nights sounds like a cheesy name for an album, it's only fitting. A collection of Japanese city pop from the daring vintage record collectors over at Cultures of Soul, this is an album coated in Pepto-Bismol pink, the peak of saccharine '80s dance music, a whole world of garish neon from which there is no respite.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.