Review by Andy Hawes for MPM
Alternative Rock artist and Pixies frontman Frank Black has just released deluxe vinyl versions of three albums originally released between 2004 and 2006: ‘Frank Black Francis’, ‘Honeycomb’ and ‘Fast Man, Raider Man’.
Frank Black Francis
This album was originally released as a 2CD set in 2003, with CD1 being a bunch of demos (apparently recorded prior to the release of the first Pixies album in 1987) and CD2 being the more ‘produced’ set of songs.
All 28 songs are included here in this new version. The original demos are generally just acoustic guitar and vocals and are appropriately raw and ragged, whereas the ‘produced’ songs are very different with trumpet, violin and electronica appearing alongside the guitar and vocals: it’s an interesting sound.
Within the original demos, there are some very interesting moments (including songwriter versions of ‘Break My Bones’, ‘I’m Amazed’, ‘Broken Face’ and ‘Vamos’ from The Pixies’ 1988 album ‘Surfa Rosa’) and the whole thing is a perfectly formed set of two fingers held up to the corporate rock that was so prevalent at the time. It’s definitely the punk rock of the late 80s and it’s very interesting to compare the original demos with those that were finally released on ‘Surfa Rosa’ or rerecorded in 2003.
The 2003 ‘produced’ release includes a version of ‘Where Is My Mind’ from ‘Surfa Rosa’. On here, it’s an LSD trip of a journey through echoing electronic soundscapes interspersed with trumpet and all held together by Black’s characteristic and unique vocals. It’s not an easy listen, but is compelling nonetheless and this is true of all of the ‘produced’ tracks on this set.
Cactus’ is another track reworked from ‘Surfa Rosa’, this time driven by clean guitars and trumpet, with background vocals and electronica meshing discordantly together into an uncomfortable, but equally compelling noise-scape. It’s not all discord and weirdness though: ‘Levitate Me’ has a catchy melody despite the oddness of the title and the lyrics; ‘Wave of Mutilation’ has a guitar figure reminiscent of early The Cure and very melodic vocals which sit at odds with the lyric, yet it all works.
Closing track ‘Planet of Sound’ is a 15 minute trek through a range of soundscapes. It’s the last thing you’d expect from a man who is clearly the master of the 1 and a half to 3 minute punk song. Starting out with vocal and two frantically strummed guitar chords, it builds through additional guitar layers and electronica before dropping back and re-emerging with discordant chords, analogue echo effects and buzzing electronics.
This is probably the least comfortable listen on the whole album. It really challenges one’s perception of what constitutes ‘a song’, as it focuses on endless repetition and noise, with almost spoken lyrics popping in and out of the track over its duration. It’s a dramatic contrast to the remainder of the record and is possibly showing Frank Black at his most experimental.
Overall, this is an incredible piece of creative work. Anyone who has ever dabbled in songwriting will be fascinated by the rawness of the original demos, especially if they are
familiar with the versions that later surfaced on ‘Surfa Rosa’. But, to me, far more interesting are the 2003 tracks which demonstrate a stunning level of creativity in the use of the instrumentation and effects. It’s very different from the garage punk noise of The Pixies, but continues the theme of Frank Black refusing to be limited by the norms of corporate music and instead creating artistic soundscapes that are uniquely and totally him. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.
Originally released in 2005, ‘Honeycomb’ is a very, very different beast compared to ‘Frank Black Francis’. It’s essentially Frank Black playing his take on melodic Americana/pop music and one is immediately struck by the catchy melodies and delicate lo-fi production and arrangements, focusing on clean and acoustic guitars with gentle drumming and electric piano.
Gone is the wild and trippy experimentation and in its place is very much more traditional songwriting. The whole thing has a deliciously loose, laid-back and ‘live’ feel that revels in its little imperfections. A little background research reveals that this album includes contributions from legends such as Steve Cropper and ex-Presley guitarist Reggie Young, which goes a long way towards explaining the lovely loose and laid-back groove that sits within these tracks.
As with all Black’s work, the lyricism is anything but ordinary and it’s great to hear him exploring his lyrical themes within a more traditional song structure and arrangement, although even here, he’s exploring more complex harmonic structures than the average pop song would contain.
This is clearly evident within the brilliant ‘Another Velvet Nightmare’ where chords shift and move and time signatures alter throughout the 4 minutes or so of the track’s length. Black even tries a blues-influenced ballad in ‘Dark End of the Street’ and he pulls it off perfectly, even down to the neck pickup Stratocaster guitar solo in the middle of the song.
Unexpected and very lovely and one of three cover versions on the album. Similarly unexpected is ‘Go Find Your Saint’ which is slightly reminiscent of Tom Petty’s early work, both in the arrangement and in Black’s approach to the vocal melodies.
Title track ‘Honeycomb’ opens with a slightly jazz influenced guitar figure before moving into a delicate soul-influenced slice of Americana. ‘My Life is in Storage’ sounds like the sort of thing Nirvana might have recorded if they’d dialled back the distortion and taken a more Americana-like approach to production and arrangements.
This is followed by ‘Atom in my Heart’ which continues the Americana feel and is another one where there is a slight Tom Petty sound to it, with some nice simple vocal harmonies adding to the chorus.
Overall, this is a lovely piece of work. The laid-back and soulful Americana approach really suits Black’s writing. It needs several listens to really appreciate the lyrical themes and complexities, but at its heart is good old-fashioned melodic songwriting: that and the delightfully loose production give this a warm and comfortable vibe that makes it a very pleasant listen.
Fast Man, Raider Man
‘Fast Man, Raider Man’ was originally released in 2006 and continues in a similar vein to ‘Honeycomb’, dancing niftily between soulful Americana, Country and Alternative Rock. This time Frank Black opted to release a double album and employed a cast of thousands to realise the musical vision therein, including pedal steel, dobro, ukulele, mando-guitar and brass instrumentation within the mix on a number of songs.
The players include ace drummers Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers/Average White Band, etc) Chester Thompson (Frank Zappa, Genesis) and Simon Kirke (Free, Bad Company), Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson, recording artist/songwriter and producer Buddy Miller, legendary session bass player Carol Kaye (who has played on an estimated 10,000 songs in her illustrious career) and session guitar genius Lyle Workman (Bourgeois Tagg). Reggie Young (Elvis Presley) also makes a return appearance on guitar.
Although there is definitely a similar vibe to that on Honeycomb with regard to the melodic songwriting, there is a different feel to the music on ‘Fast Man, Raider Man’. The production is a little less ‘lo-fi’ and the vibe is not quite as loose and laid back as on ‘Honeycomb’. That doesn’t mean it’s any better or worse; it’s just a bit different. Interestingly, the large number of different players does not limit the album’s cohesiveness one iota, although that’s probably down to the fact that each player is a total master of his/her craft.
Musically, the album retains an Americana feel, but with extra polish provided by the wider range of instrumentation. Black’s sense of melody and his use of interesting chord combinations and harmonic complexities remains and this contributes massively to the overall quality of the album. As with his other releases, he continues to write interesting and quite unique lyrics and several listens are required in order to get to grips with them (especially if you don’t have access to a lyric sheet, as I don’t with the review copy.)
Picking favourite tracks isn’t easy, but ‘Dirty Old Town’ is a belter – it’s full of spanking twangy rock n roll guitars and has a cool rock n roll/country feel. ‘Wanderlust’ is a delightful piano-led piece with a sparking drum and percussion groove and cool guitars.
The End of the Summer’ is a quite stunning piece of dark Americana, with lots of dark and doomy minor key melodies and harmonic complexities and almost spoken lyrics amongst the dark melodies. ‘Golden Shore’ has echoes of classic traditional country in its structures and chord sequences and in its lyrical theme.
It also has a lovely dobro solo which adds to the country feel. ‘Down To You’ is musically slightly similar to early Tom Petty and has an annoyingly simple and catchy refrain. ‘Kiss My Ring’ has some very Nirvana-esque melodies and chord changes and a very melodic chorus.
Elijah’ has some screamy, angsty vocals in a more uptempo and rocking track that drives along with real intent and some cool stop-starts within the arrangement. For some reason ‘Holland Town’ reminds me of Elvis Costello. It has slightly more straightforward melodies than some of the songs – a lovely piece of Americana pop.
Sad Old World’ drops into a soulful 6/8 time and adds weeping pedal steel and delicate brass into the mix, music and lyrics combining perfectly on a track that would be right at home in a smoky basement club. This is a personal favourite from the album without a doubt.
Overall, ‘Fast Man, Raider Man’ is this reviewer’s favourite of these three albums simply because the quality of the playing, the tightness of the arrangements and the less ‘lo-fi’ production suits his tastes better, but it has to be said that the songwriting on ‘Honeycomb’ is equally good, so it’s a close-run thing. Also, ‘Fast Man, Raider Man’ is arguably a few tracks too long, but then it is a double album. Overall, these two albums are recommended to anyone who likes Americana in its very broadest sense and who also likes a bit of angsty, punky Alternative Rock thrown in.
‘Frank Black Francis’ is a different kettle of fish. It’s undeniably brilliant and full of creative genius, but is a very, very challenging listen due to the extremely experimental approach to the structures, arrangement and production. Approach with caution, but do give it a listen if you admire artists who are prepared to think way outside the box to fully express their artistry.