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.

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.

Seconds later, "All My Ghosts" kicks off with a punk-rock blast of guitar before suddenly downshifting into a gorgeous, mid-tempo pop-rock song; it's like a 100-yard dash being run by a couple of chain-smokers. "Do You Feel Bad About It?" rivals The Cult of Ray's "I Don't Want to Hurt You" as the best slice of pure pop that Black has ever served up. "I Gotta Move" is a greasy call-and-response burner that beats Rocket From The Crypt at its own game, and "Six Sixty-Six" is a '50s-style honky-tonky rocker that proves Black has a pair of cowboy boots somewhere in his closet.

Both on the phone and on the record, Black sounds revitalized by the last few years. He knows that this album probably won't sell more than a few thousand copies, and he doesn't care. It was a record he made for himself, and when he's ready to make another one, he will, whether there is a record company that will release it or not.

"It's the dream of rock," he says. "That's what keeps me going. It's more the dream of playing rock music. That's what I do, so I guess I'm not going to really stop doing it unless I become disinterested. How do I maintain interest? I don't know." He stops and considers this for a few seconds.

"I just like rock music, I guess.

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