All his ghosts

With a new album, Frank Black tries to live up to his own past

Frank Black doesn't like to talk about the Pixies very much, maybe because he knows that almost everyone would rather listen to any Pixies record than one of his own solo albums. Black probably realizes that his former band's legacy is as inescapable to him as walking, but he doesn't like to be reminded of it. When the subject is brought up, his voice takes on a bored, distracted tone. Yes, I know I was in one of the most influential bands of the last decade, but I'd rather talk about my solo stuff now. He talks about the five years he spent as the Pixies' frontman as though he's discussing a job flipping burgers or mopping floors, something he doesn't really care to remember. Unfortunately for him, it's a time period that no one else can seem to forget.

As a member of the Pixies, the former Black Francis (and even earlier, Charles Thompson) was the man who wrote the songs that made the whole world scream. He was the creator of the blueprint that Kurt Cobain used to build alternative rock, an icon who spawned enough imitators to fill the bins of a Blockbuster Music store and the airwaves of nearly every radio station from Boston to Seattle. The Pixies were an incredible band--they turned pop songs inside out and showed you the guts instead of the skin, yet they were still capable of writing a song as catchy as "Here Comes Your Man," a Buddy Holly tune made in their own image. They were amazing for their time, important now, influential forever. And just when it looked like the band was about to turn its cult following into commercial success, Black unceremoniously pulled the plug, turning his back on the band to pursue the solo career that had always seemed inevitable.

Black wants people to forget that he was ever in another band. Screw the Pixies. Screw Black Francis. Better to live in an uncertain present than to choke on your own past. So he continues to make records that move further away from his former band's sound each time--the latest being the just-released Frank Black and the Catholics--and Pixies songs turn up in his live sets less often than peace in Northern Ireland. It's not an uncommon phenomenon; Elvis Costello grew a beard and abandoned his back catalog before wisely coming to his senses, and Paul Weller still won't play any Jam songs live. Black not performing songs like "Alec Eiffel" or "Wave of Mutilation" or "Debaser" in concert is like Paul McCartney not playing "Hey Jude." It's criminal. He's too arrogant to realize that pissing on your back catalog doesn't make your new songs sound any better; it just makes you look like a jerk. Well, this much can be said at least: While the ghost of the Pixies has always followed Black closer than his own shadow, he has never once looked in the rearview mirror.

Yet as Black releases his fourth solo album, his past is closer than ever. Last month, Elektra Records released another Pixies best-of, the live Pixies at the BBC. The collection comes on the heels of last year's double-disc Death to the Pixies, a greatest-hits album for a band that never really had one, and a live disc that doesn't really live. As he discusses the discs, his voice has the clipped, detached tone of a businessman. On the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Black might as well be talking about an investment he made a long time ago and forgot about, instead of a group of songs that picked the lock to a door Nirvana eventually kicked off its hinges.

"I think it's just a way to make money. That's all it is, really," he says. "It's inevitable that it happens with your back catalog, especially if it's your first record contract. The record company has the right to put out some of your stuff. It's not only a way for them to make money, it's a way for me to make money.

"It's just that, I don't know," he pauses, trying to find a tactful explanation before continuing. "You're selling used cars. You're shining up some used cars and trying to sell them again. The BBC thing is not quite like that. I guess it's previously unreleased recordings. But, I mean, it's just product. It's not a bunch of undiscovered recordings that someone found in someone's attic or anything wild like that. I mean, I'm just calling it for what it is. I don't want to get too nostalgic over something that doesn't deserve to be waxed over nostalgic."

No one could ever accuse Black of waxing nostalgic. Since he broke up the Pixies in 1993, Black has done everything he could to forget them. He changed his name from Black Francis and, for a while, refused to talk to the media. But the Pixies have always been right there, a bounced check he can never erase from his credit report. It's a shame, because his unwillingness to acknowledge his career in the Pixies has overshadowed his solo albums' occasional brilliance.

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