By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Teenager of the Year, released the following year, broadened Black's stylistic range: It was brilliantly convoluted and almost ambient, 22 songs that whispered and yodeled their dark messages (America is sinking underneath urban sprawl and strip malls, for one). "Freedom Rock," though, explained it all: "Nobody owns the pleasure of tones," Black howls over a melody that sounds not too unlike the Who. "All I listen to, it's all freedom rock." It was a statement of purpose, a declaration of independence: All music is fair game for Black to mine and mimic. He absorbs every single thing he hears and does not filter out any influence simply because it's disposable or lightweight.
The Cult of Ray, finally, is the ultimate Frank Black record, the middle ground between its two solo predecessors and Black's work with the Pixies. It rocks harder than Teenager, it's less congruous, song for song, than Frank Black, and it forever erases the imaginary lines that divide his work both lyrically and musically. For instance, there's only one song dealing with UFOs ("Men in Black," and it's a tangential reference, at best), while the album's dire closer ("The Last Stand of Shazeb Andleeb") is about an Arab immigrant who was murdered in Los Angeles.
Musically, there's the rockabilly-surf stuff ("Mosh, Don't Pass the Guy"), the pogo-rock ("Men in Black," "You Ain't Me"), and the straight pop ("I Don't Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)," the loveliest song he's ever crafted). But the title song, which is allegedly about sci-fi author Ray Bradbury, might as well be about Ray Davies, so thoroughly does it modernize the Kinks' 1960s Brit-rock sound (again, with a nod toward the Who, appropriate since the guy who mastered the Live at Leeds reissue worked the boards on The Cult of Ray).
"I've never really had any expectations or aspirations about what my music should be or what it should become," Black says. "Sometimes my records do kinda jump all over the place, but I really am a true post-punk. I kinda like to theorize that there was this last great expression called hard-core music in the early 1980s, sort of in the wake of punk and new wave, and I sometimes in my own way think that was the end. The end of rock. Everything else since then, including every record I ever made, has been some kind of combination of everything before it.
"It isn't that I don't want to make a record or a few records that are a certain style, but they never come out that way." Black laughs. "There's nothing I can do about that. I mean, some people write about you and say, 'Oh, he's trying to do this now, and he's trying to do that now,' but whatever. I'm really not trying to do anything except have a really good time and make a good record. I'm not saying everything I do is valid, even. I do what I do, and fortunately I get paid for it so I get to come back and do it again next season."
In the off-season, Black has also become something of a publicist and A&R man for a 22-year-old bedroom musician who's something of a Frank Black protege, Jonny Polonsky. Black was the primary reason Polonsky scored a deal with American Recordings, to which Black is also signed, and Black has even been known to take Polonsky's album to college radio stations when he has a free moment.
Polonsky is the end result of a post-Pixies world. Where so many bands--including Nirvana, Weezer, the Toadies, and Barkmarket (whose Dave Sardy guested on Frank Black)--lifted some element of the Pixies' blueprint to create their own schematics, this one-man band is an unabashed parrot. His terrific record, Hi, My Name is Jonny, speaks a thousand different languages but all with the same accent that he picked up from years of worshipping the Pixies, one of Polonsky's favorite bands--along with the Monkees, which provides a blurry sense of his points of reference.
As for the Pixies, they are a part of Black's distant past. He hasn't performed a Pixies song since he broke up the band in 1991, and he won't for a long time to come. That band is, for the time being, a bad memory for him--and perhaps for former bassist Kim Deal, whose Breeders succeeded and whose Amps short-circuited--and he simply doesn't have space on the tour bus for the baggage those songs carry, so he leaves them home.
"It doesn't seem like the thing to do," he says. "It's just my own...oh, how can I put it? Even though I wrote all those songs, to a lot of people it's like, 'Oh, he broke up the Pixies, and he's not so cool anymore, blah blah blah,' and so I sort of felt like some people don't really want to give me the credit for writing those songs, which is fine. I'm just the figurehead, the dude that broke it all up.
"I sort of feel like when people want to give me the credit--'Oh, yeah, that guy wrote all the songs and he was the singer and we want to hear those songs'--then maybe I'll have mellowed psychologically about my whole horrible experience of being a person in my 20s in some rock band. I won't have so many bad memories hanging around about the whole thing, and I'll whip out a few of the better ones. It'll be the right time, and people won't give me a bunch of shit about playing a song I wrote."
Frank Black performs February 22 at Deep Ellum Live. Jonny Polonsky opens.