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Grownup Teenager

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Michael Halsband

Frankly Speaking: Ex-Pixies frontman Frank Black

Frank Black retreats from weirdness on new album

You'd think by now that Frank Black had earned the right to be weird. Along with Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, the Pixies helped define indie rock in the late '80s, and to a large degree, Frank Black, known then as Black Francis, defined the Pixies.

Like 'Mat head Paul Westerberg and Hüsker's Bob Mould, Francis has a knack for harboring catchy hooks inside buzz-saw blocks of guitar riffs. As the Pixie's 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.

When the Pixies called it quits in the early '90s, Black continued to scan the spaceways for signs of life; alas, no one was listening. Thus, it's hard to blame Frank for backing off the unabashed eccentricities of his previous solo work. Frank Black (1993) was a sterling--and strange--effort, as well as a commercial flop. Teenager of the Year (1994) wowed rock scribes but didn't do much for 4AD, the singer/guitarist's longtime record label.

So Frank Black made a conscious decision to return to more earthly approach, at least musically. The resulting Cult of Ray traded on twilight zoned lyrics that were out of the blue as usual; the musical backdrop, however, was surprisingly stodgy--conservative, even.

Now Black is back with a new recording, Frank Black & the Catholics, on a new label (spinART). The music here has a raw, almost demolike feel; it's worlds away from Teenager's mapped-out zaniness. Gone are the beeps and burps of Pixies-era music, replaced by relatively straightforward bash & pop.

Despite that description, there's still plenty of variety in this sonic slam match. There's the rocket-fired rock of "Back to Rome," the punky swagger of "Suffering," the UK-pop of "I Gotta Move" and the guitar-skronk of "I Need Piece." Tossed in for good measure are a couple of brooding, introspective numbers.

"All My Ghosts" reveals that Black's fetish for otherworldly weirdness remains intact. "Have you heard about the heavenly angels?/How they came to earth and met some ladies/with whom they mated/and their young became giants." The singer may have opted for a cruder sound, but his wordsmithing continues to defy conventional logic.

"Do You Feel Bad About It" boasts revved-up guitars hitched to a regulation rock beat. Clocking in at just over two minutes, there's not much time to jump around, nonetheless Black manages to toss off a few typically wiseguy lines ("If I were you I'd give me a break").

"Solid Gold" is taken at a less hectic clip. Black alternately growls like a cornered beast and talk-sings (imagine ex-Talking Head David Byrne on steroids). Even rabid fans might have difficulty recognizing him on this one.

The same is true of "I Need Peace" on which Black comes off at times like a grownup Jonathan Richman. The album's longest tune, "Peace," is comparatively complex, featuring subtly shifting meters and extended guitar work-outs.

Guitarist Lyle Workman is far from a six-string wizard, yet his playing is emotionally compelling; check out the solo just before the last chorus of "Peace," on which he extorts a catalog of rude noises from his instrument.

On "King & Queen of Siam," arguably the album's high point, Black and his compadres remind nonbelievers that his band's namesake refers not to some holy communion but to an open-minded view of how to exploit rock's sonic possibilities. The band evokes a parched desert-like scenario; aural mirages appear and vanish right before your ears. Here, the singer toys with language as if it were his personal creation. ("Well, I tried to leave me, but I could not stay awa-a-a-a-y/Incarnation, I would love you/Resurrection, too-o-o, I would love you/It had a good start under the king and queen of Siam/It was a royal ruse."

Behind him, the Catholics manufacture a unswervingly steady groove. Bassist David MacCaffrey's bass slinks up and down the fretboard with implacable resolve, while drummer Scott Boutier's tom-toms boom away with fearsome glee.

With Frank Black & the Catholics, Black seems to have found the happy medium between his fantasy world and the earth beneath it. True, some fans might grumble that Black has sold out to alternarock's mainstream, but where were they when the going was really weird?

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Web extra to the September 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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