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The Man In Black


The Man in Black: Ex-Pixies leader Francis Black is now on his own.

Sci-fi lyrics zone out Frank Black's 'The Cult of Ray'

By Nicky Baxter

Former Pixies frontman Frank Black, once known as Black Francis, is fascinated by science fiction--that much has been obvious for years to anyone familiar with his work. He's no fanatic, mind you; he's just more than merely curious.

The Cult of Ray (American Recordings), Black's new album, is his way of paying homage to one of America's most esteemed science-fiction scribes, Ray Bradbury. But Black is as interested in the man's philosophy as he is in his plots and predictions. Particularly intriguing is Bradbury's perspective on boys and girls. "There's an interview in Playboy magazine," Black tells me, "in which he says men need science fiction but women don't, because they are the future."

Does he really agree with Bradbury's rather obscurantist views? "I think they're interesting things to consider," Black allows. No surprise here; this is the same songwriter who came up with the yearning "Abstract Plain"--as in "I wanna live on an ..." And in conversation, indie pop's pudgy genius can be as circuitous as his tunesmithing. When, for instance, it's mentioned that his lyrics suggest a preoccupation with stargazing, Black waffles: "Just because I write about science fiction doesn't mean that I'm obsessed. I mean, but I might be."

Obsessions (or not) aside, Ray's Twilight Zoned lyrics are out of the blue as usual; the musical backdrop, however, is surprisingly stodgy--conservative, even. Imagine Repo Man scored by Bachman-Turner Overdrive instead of Iggy Pop. The music's not bad, just dull--alterna-MOR.

There are a few of exceptions. The Pixie-ish "Men in Black" works because Black and his associates toss a monkey wrench or two into the works, and Lyle Workman's guitar comes at you sideways with plenty of attitude. The moody "The Creature Crawling" is an intriguing take on surf music.

On the instrumental number "The Adventure and the Resolution," Black is up to his old tricks, rocking extraterrestrially with guitars that alternately twinkle and squall like an unfriendly alien. But there aren't enough of these gems to make the new album an unqualified success.

But then, it's hard to blame Black for backing off the unabashed eccentricities of his previous work. Frank Black (1993) was a sterling--and strange--effort. It was also a commercial flop. Teenager of the Year (1994) justifiably wowed rock critics, but it, too, wasn't a hit for 4AD, the singer/guitarist's longtime record label. So Black did what a man's gotta to do; he walked.

"Everything's sell, sell, sell," Black laments. "I like capitalism, but when it comes to music ..." Was there any specific incident that prompted the termination of his relationship with 4AD? "It was a lot of things," he responds, carefully. "I just think that I wasn't getting the attention I needed. But it's the bottom line that counts."

On the other hand, Black freely concedes that he is a hard sell; his music is apparently too eccentric for product pushers. "Sometimes it's difficult to take someone like me," he admits. "I'm not the kind of musician whose records you play once and put away."

Another possible factor hindering Black is the fact that he refuses to abide by the unwritten American (Pop) Law/Myth that frowns on folks with too much self-confidence. Black knows he's good and makes no bones about it.

And has done so on any number of occasions. Regarding his lack of commercial success, Frank is blunt: "My records are unsuccessful because peoples' tastes are lame. I'm not saying my music is caviar for the brain, but I can't help think my stuff is better than a lot of crap out there." The man's got a point; so-called alternative rock, on the other hand, has no point at all.

Some of the genre's self-righteous champions blather incessantly about alternative's open-door policy regarding weirdos and musical pariahs. Isn't this the anti-in crowd whose anthem just a couple of years ago was Beck's "Loser"? Or perhaps being alienated is more acceptable than trilling about aliens. So, you'd think Black would have earned the right to be weird by now. After all, along with Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, the Pixies helped define indie rock in the late '80s.

Like Replacements head Paul Westerberg and Hüsker's Bob Mould, Black has a knack for harboring catchy hooks inside buzz-saw blocks of guitar. As the Pixies' chief singer and songwriter, Black started out as a raver with an attitude. Even if you could make out what he was screaming, deciphering his intentionally murky lyrics was tough going.

Trompe le Monde (1991), the Pixies' farewell recording, was an even bigger blast. That album's "Planet Sound" found the Long Beach native warbling about aurally advanced extraterrestrials; it also contains the blithely oblique "space (i believe in)" which boasts lines like "jefrey with one f ffery/now it occurred to me as he drove away/d= r x t/spacious." Regrettably, only after the group's rather acrimonious breakup did the burgeoning modern-rock movement recognize Black Francis and his Pixies for the visionaries they were.

On his first post-Pixies album, Black continued dishing out his dada rock for fans hungry for profundity. Interestingly, he disclaims any aspirations to form an eggheads-only party. "Jocks like my records, too," he claims. But surely lines like "I met a man/He was a good man/Sailing and shoring/Dancing the can-can/Making me foreign" require a higher intelligence to unravel--or maybe they're just nonsense in the time-honored dada tradition.

Though he had demonstrated an ability to don disparate personas as a Pixie, as Frank Black he's honed the craft down to fine performance art. Frank Black and Teenager of the Year both boast a panoply of vocal guises. Black's debut skitters from the Beach Boy crooning of "Hang on to Your Ego" to the Jeff Lynn (!) gloss of "Fu Manchu." Teenager confirmed his mastery of archetypal rock vocal poses--from Lou Reed's droll sing-speak ("Ole Muholland") to Dylan's nasally twang ("Superabound"). Which is not to say that Black lacks a voice of his own; indeed, his off-kiltered cawing is inimitably his own, more often as not.

With The Cult of Ray, however, Black and his new playmates appear content merely to sound off in someone else's world--a world in which the mono-roar of the Ramones goes toe-to-toe with "classic rock" and winds up getting flattened. But given his curious and contrary nature, you can almost bet that this is only a temporary retreat from Black's own space.

Frank Black performs Sunday (April 28) at 9pm at the Edge, 260 California Ave., Palo Alto. Tickets are $9 adv. (415/324-EDGE)

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro

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