All his ghosts

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

All three of his previous solo albums have had moments of amazing songwriting, each album revealing a little bit more of his skewed sense of melody and gift for writing lyrics that sound like they're about nothing, but could be about anything. Frank Black, released in 1993, was his pocket Pet Sounds, complete with a cover of an obscure Brian Wilson song ("Hang on to Your Ego," which the Beach Boys later turned into "I Know There's an Answer"). It wasn't a rejection of the Pixies' sound; it was almost a refinement of it, a logical next step after Trompe le Monde. Featuring ex-Captain Beefheart Band and Pere Ubu keyboard player-producer Eric Drew Feldman; They Might Be Giants' John Linell; and his old Pixies cohort, guitarist Joey Santiago, Frank Black was part genius, part insanity--just like Wilson.

Teenager of the Year arrived a year later, and it was a beautiful mess, an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink album that bounced around from furious bits of guitar noise to pretty pop slivers to just about everything else before it was through. It was a confounding and, at times, astounding piece of work, held together by Black's stream-of-consciousness lyrics and little else. But it was a little too ambitious, a little too all over the place. A handful of great ideas were spread out over the album's 22 songs, resulting in an album that wasn't as good as it could have--or should have--been. After the album was released, Black was let go from his contract with Elektra Records--voluntarily, he says--and signed to Rick Rubin's American Recordings.

Two years later, he released The Cult of Ray, his first and only album for American. The album was amazing, a synthesis of everything Black had tried to do on his first two albums distilled into 13 near-perfect songs. "I Don't Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time)" was the best song Tom Petty never wrote, all chiming guitars and Black's surprisingly sweet vocals. "Men in Black" and the album's title track were the kind of anthemic rockers that made you wonder why Black wasn't selling out arenas all across the country. The Cult of Ray was easily Black's best post-Pixies album, an album that should have made him an icon all over again.

Yet here he is two years later, releasing an album on a tiny independent label, SpinART Records, starting again at the bottom after more than a decade in the game. He jumped off--or was pushed off--American as the ship was sinking, and SpinART was the only company that was willing to throw him a life preserver. Black still doesn't really know exactly what happened.

"Well, they sort of...I don't know if they dropped me. They sort of dropped everybody," he says. "They disappeared. They had their own problems. Nobody really knew exactly what they were, and they weren't telling anybody. No one knows where they are. Supposedly, they've done some kind of deal with Columbia, but anyway, I was already out of my contract by the time that happened. All stuff that had nothing to do with me."

He isn't that familiar with his new label ("I've only met one of the guys once, so I don't know what it's like working with them," he says), and he probably couldn't care less who is releasing the album, just as long as someone releases it. Frank Black and the Catholics was recorded more than a year and a half ago, but Sony--Black's European distributor, and only record company for the last two years--refused to release it. It was too rough, they said. What did they expect? If the pop sheen of The Cult of Ray didn't sell any records, Black figured, he might as well make records the way he wants to make them. No sense in spending time and money on an album that would be shipped directly to cutout bins across the country.

So Black went into City of Sound Studios with his band of the last few years--bassist David MacCaffrey, drummer Scott Boutier, and guitarist Lyle Workman--and just started playing, just four guys in a room making noise. Three days later, Frank Black and the Catholics was finished.

"It's way different, because of the way it was recorded," Black says, his voice becoming more excited when attention turns to his new album. "We did it live to two-track. It's different than anything I've ever done before. It's just not the way that records are done. I love it. I think it's nice to make a recording that represents the way that you actually sound when you play at a nightclub. You know, live. It's honest.

"But we didn't decide to do it that way until it had already been done. It was just an accident, really. It wasn't really planned. It was meant to be a demo, and we just liked the demo, basically. It's completely different than most of the records I've been associated with. It usually takes three months."

The spontaneity definitely helped. Frank Black and the Catholics manages to be diverse without sounding unfocused, a problem that plagued Teenager of the Year. The wide dynamic shifts that marked the Pixies' output and some of Black's solo work is gone, forsaken for a bar-band aesthetic that is present throughout. It starts off with a snippet of the band playing the theme song to Green Acres, a funny and revealing moment that's a clue to the relaxed, comfortable feel of the album.

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