Black Francis


(Cooking Vinyl; 2008)

By David M. Goldstein | 16 May 2008

Yours truly is one of few Pixies fans that actually worked their way backwards through the band’s discography. My fourteen year old self purchased Frank Black’s Teenager of the Year (1994) before either Doolittle (1989) or Bossanova (1990)—mostly on the strength of the man’s searing guest spot on 120 Minutes, a classic album cover featuring Black done up prom king style, and the fact that none of my Vedder-obsessed friends knew who he was. With its twenty-two (!) chunks of off-kilter surf rock touching on subjects ranging from Pong to the desire to “live on an abstract plain,” it’s easily the one of the eighteen or so Black solo records that stacks up the best against his Pixies output. My estranged college roommate still has my copy that I lent him eight years ago. I should probably hate him for this, but I don’t.

Up until last year’s Bluefinger, I’d be lying if I said I had paid much attention to Frank Black(aka Black Francis aka Charles Thompson IV, for real)’s solo records aside from the first three. Chalk this up to mixed critical reception and the lack of a solid entry point; there’s just too damn many of them. But Bluefinger heralded the return of his “Black Francis” moniker, supposedly in an attempt to signal his throwback to a more Pixies-ish kind of thrash. And while spotty at times, Bluefinger did contain at least five tracks that looked back towards the fractured rock of the good stuff—in particular the speaker annihilating caterwaul of “Threshold Apprehension,” maybe the single strongest Black Francis song in fifteen years.

At a mere seven songs and twenty minutes, SVN FNGRS is essentially Bluefinger sans filler: a solid collection of stripped-down rock songs that key in on Francis in the attempt to reconcile his screechy past with the twangy Americana of late. “When They Come to Murder Me” and “Half-Man” best reach a happy medium between the styles, melding ringing open chords with numerous hooks and Black’s always refreshingly up front vocals (and on “Half-Man,” an underrated falsetto).

But most listeners will associate the Black Francis name with a certain set of lofty expectations, and it’s hardly surprising that homeboy is still at his best when a chugging bass line and a minimalist guitar lead have got his back. Highlight “Garbage Heap” sounds like a quality Bossanova outtake, complete with a Kim Deal-facsimile bass riff and a five-note guitar hook suggesting former bandmate Joey Santiago. Then there’s opener “The Seus,” an abstract piece of cow-funk that reminds me of Beck and finds Black in fine hollering form (“I am the great—SEUS!!!”). While I can’t help but feel a bit sheepish in suggesting that seventeen years and numerous albums removed from Trompe Le Monde (1991), Charles Thompson is still never better than when he cribs from the Pixies playbook, there’s pleasures to be had in listening to an artist so seamlessly navigate his comfort zone. The man was born for this.

If you can get past the fact that ten bucks is a lot to pay for twenty minutes of music—methinks an internet freebie might have been more fan friendly—SVN FNGRS is a refreshingly solid Charles Thompson record, and his second in a row at that. While he’s still yet to capture the top-to-bottom album quality he achieved on Frank Black (1993) or Teenager, songs like “Garbage Heap” and “Threshold Apprehension” suggest that the man’s got plenty left in the tank, and that a late career classic could be forthcoming.

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