Frank Black and The Catholics
Reviewed by Scott Till
Monday, February 15 1999, 6:33 PM
The Rise/Fall and Fall/Rise of Black Francis/Frank Black
Check your patience at the homepage because this is one of those jilted fan essays.
I was in my truck on the way to school when a friend who seemed to have his finger on the pulse of every new, exciting indie band (excluding rap, which was my favorite shit, at the time) popped in a song that shook my world. It was "Break My Body," from the Pixies' second album, Surfer Rosa. I had never heard such bottom-heavy intensity since I was very young and had first listened to The Stooges. I heard a guitar player with an excellent sense of rhythm being deliciously mutilated by a solo from another guitarist who seemed as if he didn't know what rhythm was. The guitars were complemented by the singer's near-howl which seemed to issue from the depths of an ego so hideously bruised that lyrics about broken bodies appeared to be as close to therapy as he could get.
Ah, the good old days.
One thing that sucks about getting older is finding that these jewels once uncovered, which fit so firmly into the experiential socket of a forming self-consciousness, carry with them a suspicious reverence. Was it the time, the culture, the experience of the "New" every kid undergoes, or did "Art" truly rear it gorgeous head? The best thing about being young is that you never asked such stupid questions. You just howled, kind of like Black Francis if you were tapped by the Divine One and given similar lungs. Age brings with it ridiculous classifications, value judgments, tenuous arguments, and, even worse, nostalgia.
At least I'm not alone in these feelings. Frank Black, the new chosen persona of Charles Thompson III, who was once a cool-hungry youth named Black Francis, and whose name is in current use by the main character in Chris Carter's X-Files toss-off, Millennium, must look back on those days and wonder. He used to scream at the top of his lungs, shaking walls and convention in minute plus songs like "Rock Music." Now he sings about some guy named "Johnny," and about being "The Man Who Was Too Loud."
The best compliment I can offer Frank Black's new album, Frank Black and the Catholics is that it isn't a bad record. Why? Because Thompson belongs in the company of artistic and cultural trailblazers whose productions can only be assessed within the context of their entire body of work. This is the price of genius. One of Thompson's favorite directors, David Lynch, is subject to the same kinds of critical judgments. They hurt, but they are inescapable. When one watches Lost Highway, one has to watch Blue Velvet, too, because it's no longer a matter of the film itself, but a matter of a creative apparatus behind the art product. Compared to Blue Velvet, or Eraserhead (who was played by the late Jack Nance, the subject of Black's new song, "I Gotta Move"), Lost Highway comes out as one of Lynch's worst films. Compared to the prodigiously innovative Doolittle and Surfer Rosa, or even Frank Black's first solo disc, Frank Black and the Catholics is a monotonous disappointment.
Were those albums never to enter into the culture, the new disc would have some gems on it. Especially, the plodding crunch of "Solid Gold," where he growls with familiar irony ("Fourthly, you're suspect/Thirdly, you don't get/ Secondly, you've got no respect/Finally, you're not the first) but with suspicious restraint. The guitar groove on "Solid Gold" is one of the heaviest since "Czar," from Black's first album, and the drum track is pushed high enough in the mix that your head will begin banging of its own accord. Fun stuff, except for the aforementioned vocal restraint. Don't get me wrong, Black growls and growls hard. However, "The Man Who Was Too Loud" would've ripped that song to pieces ten years ago, leaving just the ribbons of your inner cochlea behind.
"I Gotta Move" is an interesting story about the aforementioned Nance, who was beat to death at a Winchell's donuts in Los Angeles a few years back, but lacks sufficiently compelling instrumentation to accompany the tale. The music is designed more or less to function as a background for Black's self-conscious lyrics. "Steak N' Sabre" produces some hints of glory when Black stretches and growls "It's a different kind of world," across another run-of-the-mill musical progression. "I Need Peace" is a refreshing break from boredom, mostly because Black picks up the pace with some great guitar stomping, giving his drummer some room to pound for all he's worth. On the dark "You'll Like The Force," however, Black's vocals are again holding back the entire song. This usually elicits an amount of drama (check out Chris Cornell's delicious restraint on "Black Hole Sun," from Soundgarden's Superunknown, for an example), but there is none to be found on this song.
Despite Frank Black and The Catholics aesthetic deficits, the musicianship is excellent and the arrangements are really tight. Solo guitarist Lyle Workman, who is more or less a Joey Santiago upgrade, plays the same kinds of lines that Santiago did in The Pixies but with decidedly more polish, breaking in between the words with some pretty advanced rock chops. The Catholic's drummer, Scott Boutier, has impeccable timing, and hits the skins veryhard. However, notwithstanding all the finesse, everything still sounds wrong. Here's why:
The Pixies' musical innovations complemented their cryptic lyrics in a way that has not been matched since. The bizarre progressions of songs like "Dead," mostly three-chord jobs that turned on a dime, the hypnotic anger of "Gouge Away" or "Something Against You," and the wistful tone and bizarre subject matter of "Hey," all contained the perfect coupling of narrative ingenuity and aggressive guitar hooks. Black's second album,Teenager of the Year involved some serious musical explorations, most notably the cramp-inducing dexterity of "Whatever Happened to Pong?" This latest album is, like the last, The Cult of Ray, AOR with a kick, not to mention being decidedly predictable. Most of the songs sound the same, carry the usual chorus = title-of-song schema, and most of the lyrics are equally unimpressive. Here's a taste:
"Do You Feel Bad About It" Do you feel bad about it? Do you feel sad about it? Do you feel sick about it? This parting of the ways
"Suffering" I've been suffering Yeah, I've been suffering Guess I'll be suffering up around the bend
The unnerving thing here is that, these quotations define the depth of the lyrical content of the entire album. Just throw some smarmy lyrics in there, repeat the chorus three or four times and start all over again. This is how every major rock and roll band has always made its money, from Elvis to The Sex Pistols, and shit, even Nirvana. But Black Francis would at least make this rote formality interesting via sheer volume. However, onFrank Black and The Catholics, he just doesn't, and it sounds like he's holding back. I do not know why. But I do know that this restraint has crippled Black's charisma, because without it there's not much else to distinguish him from most mid-life rock stars who are trying to "mature."
When I saw Black in concert while he was supporting his first solo album, Black mouth-farted when an audience member screamed out the name of a Pixies song. Black proceeded to introduce Joey Santiago, who was on tour with him at the time, as a member of that other band, smashing the picture of a truly innovative and refreshing oeuvre in three words. I ignored my sinking heart and rocked out to the ferocity of "Czar" and smart-ass groove of "Ten Percenter." But each time Black puts out another predictable album, passing off his Pixie howls as adolescent slip-ups, bitching about hurting "children's ears" and being "The Man Who Was Too Loud," I can't help but fear that the world is the worse off for it.
Frank Black and The Catholics is available through SpinArt Records, http://www.erols.com/spinart