Review by Paul Monkhouse for MPM
Best known as frontman for the legendary Pixies, Frank Black, a.k.a. Black Francis, has carved out a phenomenal career for himself, his creativity a thing of inspiration to a thousand garage bands with the ambition to fill arenas.
When the Pixies imploded, the man born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV focused his powers into launching his own solo career and also found time to form Frank Black and the Catholics, themselves a caustic force of nature set to be one of the loudest rock ‘n’ roll bands on the planet.
Now available on vinyl for the first time, this pair of releases cover some very different, but equally compelling, albums that explore the band’s roots and their visceral power as a live act.
Originally released in 2006, *‘Snake Oil’* is a carefully loving homage to influences, the ten tracks covers of legends but wilfully eschewing the obvious for deeper cuts. As with the very best albums where notable numbers by other artists are performed, The Catholics have both put their own spin on things and made you want to dig out the original recordings to compare the two.
Those who know Black’s back catalogue may have not been too sideswiped by the artists covered, their DNA lightly sprinkled through the rest of the band’s output, but it’s still an absolute joy to delve into these worlds, the reimagining both acting as a passion project and a loving homage as well as being sonic experiments put through their own filters.
Reid Paley’s country blues ‘Take What You Want’ opens the album and echoes the original version in many ways but adds subtle little layers into the mix, not least of all in those once heard, never forgotten vocals. It’s a gentle but characterful way to start but their visceral take on Bob Dylan’s ‘Belle Isle’ is a revelation to those used to Mr Zimmerman’s orchestral stroll, their intent of taking it by the scruff of the neck Something of a Jekyll and Hyde proposition.
Again, the default setting is bringing their spiky live feel on Angst’s ‘Some Things (I Can’t Get Used To)’, ground-breaking late 50’s tune ‘The Big Hurt’ morphs into Seattle grunge and a very lively version of ‘Do Nothing’ by The Specials rips things up and will get feet moving. The party is here.
Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m Going Down’ and the Stones ‘Down in the Hole’ are both twisted into new shapes, the former boasting an irresistible hook and the latter a stripped back and oddly affecting thing of delight. There’s also a Stonesy feel to Black’s own ‘Snake Oil’, this new version a little heavier on the guitar, giving it a wilder feel especially in the coruscating solo.
There’s a gritty vibe to another Dylan track, the lengthy ‘Changing of the Guards’ having a Neil Young on ‘Live Rust’ punch that really impresses. With the serene cover of Donovan’s ‘Sleep’, things come to a gorgeously soporific end, letting us down gently with a lullaby rather than a wash of feedback. It’s a truly involving album and one that works in its own, jaggedly flowing way, curveballs and juxtaposed vistas making every step of the journey something to dip into time and time again.
The three disc, expanded version of *‘Live at Melkweg’ * is a full-blooded and beautifully presented set that captures the band’s March 2001 Amsterdam show like never before.
There’s everything long time fans of Black could wish for with not just cuts from The Catholics but also their dips into Black’s solo career and gems from the Pixies, all played with a commitment that is nothing short of breath-taking.
Whilst the crowd noise is low in the mix, this isn’t such a bad thing as it let’s you concentrate on the most important thing: the music and the remastering by Thaddeus Moore adds a raw and vital edge that instantly puts you right in front of the stage.
Almost doubling the number of tracks on the original release, the thirty-eight songs presented here are a snapshot of a band at the height of their powers, their dangerous feel always teetering on the edge of chaos but with just enough power and control to keep things on the rails.
Given the brevity of tracks in the opening salvo, this is a breathless foot to the floor opening that practically explodes from the speakers as the somewhat ironically named ‘Velvety’ kicks things off. The furiously rocking ‘I Love Your Brain’ continues the sledgehammer punch and the band barely pause for breath throughout but there’s light amongst the shade and tracks like ‘Steak ‘n’ Sabre’ and ‘I’ll Be Blue’ shimmer with Summery warmth.
It’s telling that the crowd appreciate deeper cuts as much as the huge Pixies tracks like ‘Mr Grieves’, ‘Monkey Gone to Heaven’ and ‘Gouge Away’, the quality throughout nosebleedingly high. The structure of the set is carefully crafted too as runs of wild abandon are followed by slower numbers that throw everything into sharp contrast and add a pace that is full of highs and lows, the effect absorbing rather than exhausting.
The collection works as both a perfect introduction to Black’s world but also offers so much for the already committed disciples, the expanded set capturing rare highlights hitherto unearthed. Another advantage to this is we get to hear the show as the artists originally intended, warts and all, with no judicious pruning done to fit onto a single CD and because of that it is allowed to breath and grow naturally as we experience every note as it should be.
Best listened to in one sitting, preferably with headphones on, ‘Live at Melkweg’ can proudly stand alongside of classic live albums of our modern era and will appeal to anyone who’s ever wanted to pick up a guitar, plug it into a wall of Marshall speakers and hit that first chord. A colossal achievement and one that can still shake the very foundations, especially in this new widescreen edition.
New vinyl reissues coming on 20th January 2023 – Frank Black And The Catholics’ ‘Snake Oil’ and ‘Live At Melkweg (Expanded Edition)’
Now available to order worldwide: https://frankblack.lnk.to/vinyl