Cooking Vinyl (CKV-CD-4807)
Grade: 4 stars
Long has Frank Black toiled as a solo artist, his quirky, serrated alternative-rock songs finding little commercial success as the indie world clamored for the return of The Pixies, the much-beloved band he fronted between 1986 and oh, let’s say 1992.
Unjustly perhaps, Black’s output has always been measured against The Pixies’ revolutionary mix of jagged guitar fury, whiplash dynamics, psychotic surf music, eccentric lyricism and thorny hooks, and the verdict, more often than not, has been mixed.
All of that was forgotten during the Pixies’ hugely successful reunion tours in recent years. Now that that’s all over, however ? at least for the time being ? it’s time to reassess Black, the sonic adventurer, and all that he’s done post-Pixies.
93-03 is a greatest hits album, with a majority of the material culled from Black’s self-titled debut and 1994’s Teenager Of The Year. And that’s no accident.
Transitioning out of the Pixies, Black wasn’t quite ready to drop everything he had built his reputation on as a songwriter, and so Black’s first effort sans Pixies was cut from the same cloth as Trompe Le Monde, that band’s swan song.
Effusive pop songs like “I Heard Ramona Sing” and the Beach Boys cover “Hang On To Your Ego” are missing here, but “Los Angeles” is. Rampant with paranoia and running red hot, “Los Angeles” had a strong Latino-rock presence, something the Pixies used to great effect on albums like Surfer Rosa.
One of Black’s heaviest songs, “Los Angeles” is rife with stinging electric-guitar riffs, dreamy pop moments, furious acoustic strum and skull-thumping drums, and it’s followed by similarly cast rockers like “Ten Percenter” and “Czar.”
Also included from that album is the upbeat, hook-filled acoustic flurry of “Old Black Dawning.”
Teenager Of The Year is represented here by modern-rock radio hits “Abstract Plain,” “Calistan,” “Freedom Rock” and “Headache.” A little lighter, a little quicker as far as tempos go, and laying more emphasis on piano, organ and strings, while still reeling off angry snarls of guitar chords, Teenager Of The Year saw Black venturing into more classic pop-oriented territory, and the impact of all three songs is instant. As skewed as they are, they’re undeniably catchy and they gave every indication that Black was on the verge of great things.
Cult Of Ray slowed that momentum in 1996. Veering away from the vicious strikes and exotic flavors of The Pixies and Black’s solo debut, Cult Of Ray was more straightforward, offering up the rip-roaring “Men In Black” and the taut “You Ain’t Me” as proof that Black could still smoke ’em when he had ’em. And “I Don’t Want to Hurt You” showed Black going soft and engaging in classic pop.
What followed was a string of critically ambivalent works, including Frank Black And The Catholics, Pistolero, Dog In The Sand, Devil’s Workshop and Show Me Your Tears. None were God awful, and each had moments of brilliance, such as the strangely compelling, country-tinged rocker “Hermaphroditos,” but neither did they make anyone forget the Pixies.
Still melodic, Black’s songwriting approach seemed to grow more eclectic, but as he ranged wider and wider, taking deep drinks of brackish Americana, he lost a bit of the old magic. The delightfully weird personality of his lyrics was lost in faceless songs that lacked the raw tension and schizophrenia of Black’s best work.
Nevertheless, gems such as the ragged, slow-burning “All My Ghosts,” a hook-filled, high-stepping “I Gotta Mov