There was a brief publishing phenomenon a little while back (probably loosely based on Sex & The City, as were most things at the time) in which self-help guides appeared explaining to women when to give up, i.e. when a man was Just Not That Into Her. Some of today's pop stars could do with a similarly frank treatment at times, don't you think? Someone could have done with sitting David Bowie down and saying: Tin Machine. No. Just as an example.
Which brings us on to Frank Black. General perception is that Charles Thompson's alter-ego's output has been in a slow, not-quite-graceful decline from the very start of his career, starting with some of his defining moments on Come On Pilgrim, through his progressive megalomania in the Pixies, via some decent solo albums, onto some mixed-bag albums with the Catholics and finally on some theoretically interesting, but ultimately dull new solo records. Well, that's not quite accurate, and there's a sting in the tail. So let's delve a little deeper shall we...
I'm suffering a fairly long-term Pixies burnout. I was obsessed for a while, venturing as far as an undergraduate dissertation. Oh yes. But I've since not really listened for a long while, and have been less than enthused by the former/current frontman's latest work. I'm one of those who'll argue the finer points of Come On Pilgrim as the Pixies' finest hour, although I also consider the rest of their releases indispensable. But as so often with this kind of arrangement, people (you know... people...) have a tendency to dismiss post-legendary work. Which is a shame, because FB's eponymous first solo album was fantastic, probably the equal of the Pixies' parting Trompe Le Monde, and it was followed by the wonderful Teenager Of The Year, a lengthy album filled with insanely inventive and catchy pop songs.
It was followed by the first dip in creativity the man had ever had, with the patchy (although often inspired) Cult Of Ray, the last solo effort for a while as after this, the Catholics were assembled for a series of straight-to-2-track rock'n'roll numbers. Here's where my opinion coincides with 'them', the proletariat: these are more patchy still. As always there are some great tracks, and are worth putting some time and energy into to appreciate, but it was almost like an overload of material, like a self-editing button had been switched off. The Catholics split after 2003's Show Me Your Tears (for me an upturn) and Frank went into creative overdrive starting with Honeycomb in 2005. For this he drafted in an incredible roster of seminal musicians: the likes of Steve Cropper, Billy Block, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldman all appeared, hosted by the production, um, talents of Jon Tiven. Many are of the impression that it was this self-proclaimed "polarising and controversial" individual, with his flat, lifeless production, that sucked the soul out these songs.
This was where the analogy at the start comes in: somebody needed to sit down with Frank Black and tell him that, while there's a place for smooth, confessional country-soul singers in this world, it's not the role Frank Black was born to fill. He's just not very good at it. His limited vocal range and timbre let him down at all the worst points, and it was shame to have to drag up the occasional time-change or non-standard key shift to try and justify the presence of the track.
Honeycomb was described by it's author at the time as his Blonde On Blonde, a divorce album and a sidestep in style. It's no Blonde On Blonde, let's get that straight, and the divorce elements vary between the bizarre duet with his ex-wife Jean on Strange Goodbye and the hideous saccharine of Violet, possibly the worst thing Black's ever put his name to.
The album was followed by more of the same (Fastman/Raiderman) and its scheduled follow up, Grand Duchy, is an album with gf Violet along similar lines. I'd never been less enthused about Frank Black until this last weekend, when details of another album pencilled in for June arrived. Now, I'm not going to post a track out of respect - maybe later - but this is different. It's stripped down. It's rock'n'roll. It's raw. The album will be called Bluefinger, and it's Frank Black hitting that magical mystery land between the punishing bite of the Pixies and the energising and fascinating pop of his early solo career. The bass is on the edge of completely cracking up, the drums pound, and Frank whoops and hollers like a dog on heat (possibly the theme of this album, if you catch my drift), the barely disguised innuendos flying past his lips in a maniacal scream. It's exciting stuff, and the album as a whole has an interesting balance to it: the rolling punk of Threshold Apprehension and Tight Black Rubber is balanced by the more expansive second half, Angels Come To Comfort You, or You Can't Break A Heart And Have It being prime examples.
Bluefinger is the first time I've been excited about a new Frank Black album for about 4 years, and it's motivated me to break out the older stuff. So I'm posting from Teenager Of The Year: wildly diverse as this album is (songs like Big Red contain more ideas than most bands have in a lifetime), I'm breaking out The Rock. It's difficult to pick out a highlight on this record, but I'll plump for Thallasocracy, a deceptively straightforward, head-down, riff based monster. Being Frank Black, it's far more complex than that, the lyrics combining Caesar, Inuit and Romanov with short, sharp pop-pop-pop sounds and huge E-string bass riffs. It's got Eric Drew Feldman's signature synths all over it, and Lyle Workmans' explosive lead guitar. It's a beaut. If this doesn't get you excited for Bluefinger, you're probably already dead.
Frank Black - Thallasocracy (Teenager Of The Year, 1994)