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Devil's Workshop

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Album Review

The companion album to the reflective, ambitious Black Letter Days, Devil's Workshop is short, simple, and lively, a collection of rollicking, quirky road songs that recall some of the more oblique moments on Teenager of the Year and the more rock-oriented tracks on Pistolero and Dog in the Sand. And, as on Black Letter Days, Frank Black uses travel and the West as muses, particularly on the bright, bittersweet jangle pop of "Out of State"; the bouncy yet edgy "San Antonio, TX"; and "Are You Headed My Way?," a singalong set to a boogie-woogie beat. While Devil's Workshop's playful, off-kilter rock is arguably more musically straightforward than most of Black Letter Days, Black and the Catholics still craft a surprisingly full sound from their back-to-basics, two-track approach. In particular, the album features some of the most sizzling guitar work to appear on one of Black's albums since his days in the Pixies; even some of the lesser songs here, such as "The Scene" and "Whiskey in Your Shoes," boast impressively slashing rhythm guitars and incendiary leads. Fortunately, though, many of the songs here are among the best he's written in his later solo career, whether it's the vaguely spooky, Teenager-esque pop of "His Kingly Cave"; the cryptic but oddly brooding rock of "Bartholomew" and "Heloise"; or the playful, romantic "Modern Age" (no, not the Strokes song, although it would be interesting to hear Black cover it). The fun, easygoing vibe of Devil's Workshop is exemplified by "Velvety," a version of the Pixies' B-side "Velvety Instrumental Version" (and one of the first songs that Black ever wrote) that finally has downright silly but entertaining lyrics. The song's rip-snorting guitars, stop-start rhythms, and Black's wound-up delivery don't recall the Pixies so much as expand on that sound without seeming self-consciously mature. Like Black Letter Days, this album starts out strong and sort of peters out toward the end, but it's less noticeable here since the album is just shy of a half-hour long. While it's possible that combining the best songs from both releases would've resulted in another great album like Teenager of the Year or Dog in the Sand, both Black Letter Days and Devil's Workshop are different and enjoyable enough to make them both worthwhile for die-hard Frank Black fans. Ultimately, Black Letter Days may be the more "important" work, but Devil's Workshop's fun, energetic rush shouldn't be missed (or dismissed) either.

Devil's Workshop, Frank Black & The Catholics
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