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Frank Black and the Catholics took their crusade to the Catalyst.

Our Frank

Granted, it's a pretty bizarre arc that Frank Black's solo career has taken in the almost 15 years since he disbanded the Pixies. And yeah, sometimes I don't know what the hell he thinks he's doing, either. But anyone who's worried that he's "lost it" in that time need only have seen his show at the Catalyst Friday to be properly reassured.

The "it" that we're talking about here is, simply put, the ability to completely fuck up rock music and sound incredible doing it. The key to the Pixies' cult appeal was the way Black constructed mutant pop songs that--with their weird juxtaposition of sharp riffs, spastic punk guitar, surreal lyrical images and unexpected stylistic changes--were the musical equivalent of William Burroughs' literary cut-ups. Perhaps what has turned some fans off to Black's more recent albums with the Catholics is that the songs often seem more conventional (and it doesn't help matters that when he decided to record live to two-track with the Catholics, his work lost the dizzying gloss-on-noise production that defined the Pixies).

But Friday at the Catalyst, Black was anything but conventional. At certain points he was almost playing some kind of punk-rock jazz, letting the Catholics drift into dissonance around him while he clung tightly to the core of each song, with everyone eventually pulling together again in the end. A couple of his recent songs have been vastly improved with some post-studio roadwork, including "All My Ghosts" and "Hermaphroditos," which at this point is a blazing mosh number that ranks among his best. His cover of Larry Norman's "666" (which was always a hoot of a choice anyway, since Norman is considered the father of Christian rock) has evolved into a "Star-Spangled Banner"-type anthem that would either give Norman himself a good chuckle or scare the bejesus out of him.

Interestingly, Black still plays many of the songs from his Pixies days pretty straight, especially "Where Is My Mind," which kicked off the show. "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Crackity Jones" also sounded not too different from their original incarnations. I think this is a rather important point, since Black is in a sense still working on the legacy of the Pixies, and I think he knows it. The way he preserves the original power of the songs allows newer fans to get a real taste of how they shaped the sound of alternative rock. When every last little indie kid knows that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was really just a rip-off of "Gouge Away" (as Kurt Cobain himself often took the trouble to point out), I think we can all sleep a little easier.

Steve Palopoli

Singin' in the Vault

If the Celestine Prophecy is to be believed, we can attribute the astounding rate of divorce these days to an evolution in human consciousness. The tradition of marriage can be looked at like a pair of training wheels, keeping us upright, safe and reasonably balanced (in theory, anyway), but at the same time preventing us from exploring the full potential and maneuverability of our earthly vehicles. The divorce rate, then, is simply a function of our drive to know our individual selves, to forego dependence on the soul mate myth and embrace interdependence with the collective.

Maybe this is all hogwash?

But anyway, it's worth considering when we look at the steadily increasing ranks of singer/songwriters (or should we say wandering minstrels?) roaming the land. Whether or not they are the selfsame soul-searching divorcees of James Redfield's prophecy is irrelevant--they're part of a trend, and at the core of every trend is another myth, a peek at an archetype dressed in modern-day clothing, whose job it is to reopen neural pathways long since closed by the illusory exigencies of modern life.

Enter Matthew Embry.

When he won second prize at the songwriters competition at Zelda's back in January, I saw more than one person's jaw drop as they realized that the guy walking up to the stage to accept his award was the same guy who had simply played a CD of some unimaginably strange piano playing (he had prerecorded himself), which suddenly shifted to a carefree showtune style while Embry proceeded to sing (in a chipper, childlike way) about Helen Caldicott, Howard Zinn and the forthcoming apocalypse in "Lost Souls Back to the Overmind." Their befuddlement was understandable--Embry's songs and icily innocent stage persona are not the standard earnest, sometimes overly sentimental heartfelt fare of your average troubadour. His songs are delightfully insane, and yet he exercises a surreal, almost authoritarian control over them, while simultaneously cultivating a weirdly realized naiveté. It's evil genius if I've ever seen it, because, see, I love dolphins and whales as much as the next hippie, but nevertheless, for the rest of the evening I was singing the chorus from an unnamed Embry song composed for his unfinished musical, which goes like this: "Harvest the dolphins! / Catch the blue whales! / We've got to rid ourselves of the mammalian scourge / together, we cannot fail!"

It was Eli Salzman, though, who put me in touch with the wider movement of singer/songwriter independence. To me, he embodies the special formula with which these troubadours seek to infect the masses with a penchant for soul-searching. Sometimes it seems as though somewhere, someone opened up a bottle of ice-nine earnestness that spreads from songwriter to songwriter, crystallizing lessons of the heart. Ani DiFrancois certainly a huge figure in the world of songwriters seeking to put a little beauty and truth back into the world, as Salzman conveyed with the help of local golden-throated a capella diva Molly Heartwell in their rendition of DiFranco's "Back, Back, Back." Also endemic to this breed of newfangled folkie is the tendency to present the unaffected Un-Persona, a sort of everyman (or woman) pose designed to establish an intimate rapport with the audience. Once, at a friend's party, Salzman played guitar while a roomful of singers improvised an extended jam of the most amazingly genuinely loving rendition of "Happy Birthday" that I've ever heard. The boundary between performer and listener was completely nonexistent that night, a phenomenon which Salzman might have invoked at this last performance, except that the format of a performance, however casual, inevitably reinforces the boundary between performer and audience. I'd ramble on about manufacturing identities and the energetic pathways that moderate evolution if I had more space, but thankfully the universe sometimes works in mysterious and benevolently abbreviated ways.

Upcoming

The Lonely Kings, Divit, The Chop Tops and F The Hope That You Gave Me will rock the Catalyst on April 25. Vincent's Ear and Thundergasm swoop into Brittania Arms on April 26. Catch the African stylings of Chinyakare at the Kuumbwa on April 25. Norton Buffalo saddles up to the Kuumbwa on April 26. And at the end of the weekend, get ready to get down and dirty with the Juan L. Sanchez Emsemble at the Kuumbwa on April 27, a Latin fusion band featuring Paul Contos (founder of the Kuumbwa) and multi-instrumentalist Dayan Kai, along with stand-up bassist Steve Uccello and percussionist David McCormick.

Mike Connor

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From the April 23-30, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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