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Frank Black Francis

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Album Review

2004 was the year that Charles Kitteridge Thompson IV seemed to finally find a balance between the legacy of his work with the Pixies and his separate identity as a solo artist. After all, that year's reunion with the Pixies could have only come about because he felt secure enough in his work as Frank Black to revisit the songs he wrote as Black Francis. The two-disc set Frank Black Francis also bridges the gap between his personas, offering a disc of solo demos recorded the day before the Pixies went into the studio to record The Purple Tape (half of which became Come on Pilgrim), and a disc of recent studio recordings with Pere Ubu and David Thomas collaborators the Two Pale Boys that revisits and reinvents some of the Pixies' key songs. The demos disc is even sparer and rawer than The Purple Tape — it's just Black Francis and his guitar, recording directly into a Walkman — and the newer disc is far lusher, softer, and weirder than Frank Black's first two solo albums, but despite (or perhaps because of) their polarized approaches, they both sound fresh, vital, and a lot less predictable than most archival releases. Any fans delighted by 2002's Pixies, which presented the half of The Purple Tape that didn't make it to Come on Pilgrim, will probably be equally taken with Frank Black Francis' first disc. Demos can either crackle with potential that makes them exciting in their own right, or just sound unfinished; disc one has some of each, but most of the song sketches here are nearly as invigorating, in their own way, as the Pixies' finished material. Not only can you hear songs like "Subbacultcha" and "The Holiday Song" take shape, you can hear Thompson becoming Black Francis. It's a fun, funny, and exciting transformation: he sounds like a smarty-pants kid as he plays these raw but still brilliant songs, especially when he sings Kim Deal's parts on "I'm Amazed" and "I've Been Tired" (and the high, breathy part of his register does sound uncannily like Mrs. John Murphy's voice), or the lead guitar lines and drum parts on songs like "Oh My Golly." Most of the songs have enough presence that they sound fleshed out with just Francis and his guitar. "Broken Face," "Nimrod's Son," and "Caribou" sound like spooky campfire singalongs, and "Isla de Encanta" is recast as angular, Latin American folk. "Rock a My Soul" — which appears in the most cleanly recorded version yet unearthed — and its kissing cousin, "Boomchickaboom," both revel in Francis' love of catchy, surreal nonsense and '50s rock, and also sound oddly contemporaneous with his later solo work (especially Devil's Workshop and Dog in the Sand). Not all of the demos are revelatory: "Ed Is Dead" and "Vamos" lack the thrust that bass and drums give them, but they fizz with the on-the-brink creativity of the rest of the disc.

Even though the second disc doesn't have the excitement of what was to be, it does show that Frank Black can cover his own work with as much, if not more creativity than other artists; in fact, some of these covers are more different from the originals than, say, David Bowie's version of "Cactus" or TV on the Radio's "Mr. Grieves" were. This part of Frank Black Francis is called the "treated disc," and it's an apt way of describing the approach to these songs: the arrangements are largely electronic and highly processed. It's interesting, but not surprising given the involvement of the Two Pale Boys, that a lot of the disc sounds like latter-day Pere Ubu rather than the Pixies: "Cactus" and "Into the White" have the layered, lumbering, off-kilter feel of the band's Pennsylvania and St. Arkansas-era work. "Caribou" and "Where Is My Mind?" sound a little overdone and reactionary, but for the most part disc two offers a genuinely fresh perspective: "Velouria," "Wave of Mutilation," and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" opt for slow, dreamy surrealism instead of the Pixies' usual fast, jagged surrealism. The futuristic ska on "The Holiday Song," the Middle Eastern electronica of "Subbacultcha," and the brooding, brassy take on "Nimrod's Son" are among the standouts, along with the epic final track, a 15-minute version of "Planet of Sound" that begins with Who-like guitar strumming and unfurls into drones and whistling trains. The song probably didn't need to be that long, but it has an ambition and oddness that needs to be heard more often in Black's solo work. Indeed, these covers seem to be more about his reclaiming the songs by making them fresh for himself again, rather than necessarily revealing anything new to Pixies fans. Regardless, those who really love Frank Black and Black Francis' songs, as opposed to just their sound, will enjoy eavesdropping on him playing around with his work, both before and after it became part of the alternative rock canon.

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