Black Letter Days
Frank Black & The Catholics
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Instead of releasing one sprawling album as he did with Teenager of the Year, this time Frank Black spreads a bounty of songs over two simultaneously released albums, Black Letter Days and The Devil's Workshop; interestingly, his fellow college rock veterans Tom Waits and Paul Westerberg also released two albums at once just a few months earlier in 2002. Black Letter Days, alphabetically the first of the two albums, is also the bigger and more ambitious work. Feeling like a cross between Teenager's length and the rootsy charm of his previous album, Dog in the Sand, Black Letter Days spans galloping ballads like "Chip Away Boy"; stripped-down, rootsy numbers such as "The Farewell Bend"; and appealingly tossed-off songs like "True Blue." Bookended by two versions of Waits' "Black Rider" — the first a gleefully black-hearted introduction to a twisted cabaret show, the second a campy, crooned finale to it — the album does feel a bit like a show or a travelogue of stories from the old and new West, such as the cryptically confessional "California Bound," "Cold Heart of Stone," and "End of Miles." These songs, as well as the epic rockers "1826" and "Jane the Queen of Love" prove that while bands like the Stooges and the Violent Femmes may have been his inspiration during the Pixies years, it's the Stones who inform his later work the most, adding a rootsy twang to his rock and a tough but bittersweet edge to his ballads. Though it's too weird to be alt-country and too traditional for some fans of Black's Pixies and early solo work, it's this lush yet rollicking direct-to-two-track sound that's the real standout on Black Letter Days, rather than any one song. At 65 minutes long and 18 tracks strong, the album's very length tends to get in the way of making a connection with any particular track, although there are plenty of enjoyable moments along the way, "Valentine and Garuda," "Southbound Bevy," and "Jet Black River" chief among them. Black Letter Days isn't quite as exciting or focused as Black's best solo work, though that's not entirely surprising since he's releasing so much of it at once. Arguably, some prudent pruning might've made the album great instead of good, but even the album's uneven moments are still pretty enjoyable.
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