Back when Frank Black was calling himself Black Francis and fronting the Pixies, his band was changing the sound of modern music with screechy guitars and a penchant for alternating quiet verses with loud choruses. But Mr. Black’s real innovation was his ability to construct chords around passing tones–notes not contained on the scale of the song.
Kurt Cobain would later adopt the same technique, but Mr. Black was the first rock artist to do this. It was a trick that made the listener feel somewhat unsettled and out of place, and inevitably took a few listens to “get.” But when these ingeniously disjointed arrangements were combined with bassist Kim Deal’s winsome, sexy vocals and Mr. Black’s vocal exertions, they made for beautiful music.
Unfortunately, after a few great albums– Surfer Rosa and Doolittle –there was nothing more to say, which I suspect had more to do with the breakup of the Pixies than bickering between bandmates.
In the aftermath, Black Francis–whose real name is Charles Thompson IV–changed his name again, to Frank Black (which would later inspire the naming of the lead character in Chris Carter’s ill-fated Millennium TV series). Then he changed his sound, largely abandoning the quirky style of composition he had honed with the Pixies. Three overwrought studio albums followed.
In 1997, Mr. Black morphed again, forming a group called Frank Black and the Catholics and adopting a pared-down bar-band sound, which was a better showcase for his still-considerable talent. The first two albums with the Catholics were promising; they had that Pixie-ish fire. But the songs– with a few exceptions, like “All My Ghosts” from Frank Black and the Catholics –didn’t cut it. They were toss-offs, ditties thrown together at the last minute in the studio.
Meanwhile, Mr. Black’s dwindling coterie of admirers, mostly rock critics and ex-Pixies fans, kept looking for a glimmer of hope as their hero cascaded down the record-label food chain from Elektra to American Recordings, to SpinArt, to his current label, Colorado-based What Are Records?
Finally, after so many twists and turns, Mr. Black has found himself again with his latest album, Dog in the Sand .
The album leaves all of Mr. Black’s other solo work in the dust. The originality of the production, which was helmed by Nick Vincent, and the quality of the compositions are reminiscent of the Surfer Rosa – Doolittle era.
The first striking thing you notice about Dog in the Sand is the raw and sparse state of the production. It’s announced on the first song, “Blast Off,” with a few strums of reverb-drenched guitar and a line of notes by keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman on a spooky-sounding Clavioline. Then, without warning, the song erupts into a barroom brawl of a jam.
At their core, the Catholics are just a good old rock band: two guitars, bass and drums. But on Dog it’s the addition of Mr. Feldman, the former keyboardist of venerated art rockers Captain Beefheart, that makes all the difference. Mr. Feldman plays a mean Wurlitzer electric piano, which combined with the original Catholics makes for an updated 60’s country-rock sound.
Musically, there’s not a weak track in the collection, and a few of them–notably “St. Francis Dam Disaster,” “Robert Onion” and “If it Takes All Night”–are real cracklers.
Another surprise on Dog is the quality of Mr. Black’s voice, which on recent recordings had begun to sound flat but now possesses a newfound authority as he unleashes a gnarly falsetto and some newly acquired vocal licks borrowed from Mick Jagger’s Exile on Main Street period. (On “Stupid Me,” for instance, “away” sounds like “ew-aye.”)
As with all of his work dating back to the Pixies, Mr. Black’s greatest weakness as a songwriter is in the lyrics. Does anyone listen to them? Probably not. That you could never understand what the hell Mr. Black was saying behind all that wonderful noise and vocal trickery was undoubtedly a good thing. Still, they bug me.
On Dog , Mr. Black makes no effort to change his ways. Check out these lyrics from “Hermaphroditos Is My Name”:
How do you love me
Deeply with your scalpel?
I got a mouthful
Of suicidal drugs
I am a dog
I am a sculpture
You hate my features
You name me for a god
Forget your yin
And go fuck your yang.
What the hell is this guy talking about?
There’s one ray of light. On the song “St. Francis Dam Disaster,” Mr. Black tells the story of a dam break outside of Los Angeles, and the mass of the water that rushes towards the city and the people and things it sweeps up along the way. It’s a simple story, told simply. And I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but Mr. Black, in this rare moment of musical and lyrical synchronicity, swept me away, too. I wish that particular dog would bite more often.
Carthy: Frank Folk for Now People
She may be descended from British folk-music royalty–her father is acoustic guitar legend Martin Carthy and her mother is esteemed vocalist Norma Waterson–but 25-year-old Eliza Carthy is also a child of 90’s pop culture.
In her homeland, critics have made nearly as much fuss about her various facial piercings and Day-Glo hair color as they have about her singing, songwriting and skill on the violin. And Ms. Carthy’s taste for experimentation extends beyond her personal appearance. Her ambitious 1998 double-disc set Red Rice , released on Topic Records in the U.K. and short-listed for that country’s Mercury Music Prize, craftily fused traditional song forms with the modern dance-floor sounds of drum-and-bass.
So, after an initial spin of Ms. Carthy’s U.S. major-label debut, Angels & Cigarettes (Warner Bros.), it’s surprising to discover just how conventional much of the album seems.
Yes, Ms. Carthy does immediately distinguish herself with her confident fiddle work and her plain but dignified voice, which she often adorns with thick multi-tracked harmonies, much like another daughter of a great musical family, the late lamented Kirsty MacColl. Also noteworthy is the endearing unpretentiousness of her accent; Ms. Carthy hails from northern Yorkshire, deep in James Herriot country, and thus pronounces the word “but” as if it were “book” with a T instead of a K at the end.
But underneath the ear-catching surface lurk some fairly generic contemporary-female-singer-songwriter formulae: mid- to up-tempo numbers with a quasi-ethnic flavor, backed by the non-threatening shuffle of a drum loop, the same type of “sensitive grown-up” fare offered by the likes of Dido or Loreena McKennitt.
At least, that’s how it sounds initially. With repeated listening, more interesting traits emerge. Odd instrumental touches pop up when least expected: the jangle of a mandolin, a laconic pedal-steel guitar, a fruity Hollywood string arrangement. Ms. Carthy’s melodies reveal unorthodox aspects: restless melismas, clever intervallic jumps, rhythmically displaced lines that tug against the beat.
The lyrics she delivers in those oop-north cadences blend disarming honesty with an impish sensuality. “Breathe” recounts an asthma attack with poetic force, while “Fuse” is a bittersweet ode to burnout. But Ms. Carthy is just as apt to be playful as pensive. On “Beautiful Girl,” a song about the stereotypical female admired by everyone for her looks until age creeps in, she sings the line, “Beautiful girl dressed in blue / I’ve got a friend wants to be mean to you” with a barely repressed grin.
Her world-weariness and sardonic wit reach a peak on “The Company Of Men,” which begins with an audacious remark–”I’ve given blowjobs on couches to men who didn’t want me anymore”–and climaxes with the pointed observation, “I don’t want to be one of the beautiful people / ‘Cos beautiful people are boring.”
Angels & Cigarettes ‘ many subtle charms may not engender the massive crossover success for which Ms. Carthy was probably hoping, but they do confirm her as a promising new practitioner of a different sort of folk music than the kind her parents have spent their lives making.