Sometimes you have to go backward. And sometimes that’s a great place to go.
On Frank Black’s two new albums, Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop (both on spinART Records), Black aims towards ’70s and ’80s-era Tom Waits (bookending Black Letter Days with twin covers of Waits’ “Black Rider”), the Rolling Stones’ ’60s heyday, and even his old Pixies sound. Some, in fact most, may be disappointed that Black spends more time working out of the Stones idiom than he does revisiting his early Pixies work. But it seems unfair to tear the guy down for not writing another masterpiece like Doolittle. Criticizing him for breaking up the Pixies however, demands some ink.
Rumor has it that Black, then Black Francis, called it quits with the Pixies because bassist Kim Deal wanted more of her own songs on the albums. She’d already proven she could write (check out Doolittle’s “Gigantic”), but creative differences, being what that are, only allowed Deal to play George Harrison to Black’s Lennon-McCartney. After the breakup, Black and guitarist Joey Santiago took off together and Deal formed the Breeders with Throwing Muses guitarist Tanya Donelly (soon to be replaced with Deal’s twin sister, Kelley).
This is where the criticism kicks into overdrive. The Breeders have some amazing songs. Frank Black has some amazing songs.
One can only fantasize what the Breeders’ “Cannonball” would have sounded like with Black’s input or what Black’s “Headache” could have been with Deal’s high-pitched harmonies. Ah, sweet fantasy.
This what-if-they-just-worked-it-out-and-stayed-together fantasy can be applied to dozens of bands—the Beatles, the Byrds, Hall & Oates—but in reality rock fans are most often left with memories and spotty-at-best solo careers. Pixies fans can at least take heart in the fact that Black’s solo outing has been more artistically successful and longer lasting than most. And with Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop, he continues his streak of solid records.
Mining Waits’ and Lou Reed’s beautiful-losers muse, Black Letter Days contains 16 originals, plus the two “Black Rider” covers. But unlike those of his idols, Black’s Black Letter Days tunes are accessible on the virgin listen and revolve around a unified sound: train-wreck lead electric guitar (of course), folksy acoustics, plink-plunk piano and lots of pedal steel.
The album’s first few originals, especially the rough but poppy “California Bound” and the up-tempo cowboy ballad “Chip Away Boy,” introduce the listener to the Stonesy, Old West theme that permeates the album. Even when Black’s straight-ahead rock kicks in with “Black Letter Day,” the acoustic piano drops clues that the pedal steel won’t be gone for long.
Only with rockers “1826” and “Jane the Queen of Love” does Black remember his ultra-messy, super-simple punk rock roots. But even with these two simple epics, he doesn’t forget the Keith Richards/gunslinger sound.
Not only does the instrumentation add to the Old West feel, but Black also recorded the album using primitive live-to-stereo or mono two-track technology. The effect is that of a homemade album produced by somebody who knows a lot about producing homemade albums.
With 18 tracks spread over 65 minutes, the album is long, but suffers no filler. Even the sparse, demo-sounding “True Blue” serves a purpose (giving the album a break from the grunge and twang guitars). Black fans will undoubtedly prefer some tracks to others, but it’s unlikely anyone will go scrambling toward the fast forward button.
Devil’s Workshop, by comparison, is shorter and more rocking. Black’s homage to the Stones’ “Sister Morphine” sound on Black Letter Days has been transmogrified to the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” sound. The acoustic guitar intro to “Velvety” is a straight Keith Richards rip and the vocals are Black’s best Jagger impersonation, which seems strange but works great. Devil’s Workshop isn’t just imitation, though. After the initial impression, Black is back to Black. The second track, “Out of State,” is one of the album’s most Pixie-like tunes and even features a very Joey Santiago-like guitar solo (it may in fact be Santiago—he’s credited in the liner notes with “additional guitar”). From here, Devil’s Workshop is filled with good-as-expected originals, with every tune offering at least one hook to fall into.
Like Black Letter Days, this album wanders through the West with the honky-tonk piano and Hammond organ of “San Antonio, TX” and the sloppy “Whiskey in Your Shoes.” Between the alt-country riffs, Black manages to sing exactly like his late-’80s self—“Bartholomew” and “Heloise” could almost be outtakes from the Doolittle sessions.
Taken as whole, Devil’s Workshop is more playful, off-kilter and straightforward—musically, not lyrically—than most of Black Letter Days, but it’s hard to pick which is the better buy. If hard-pressed, go with Black Letter Days. Eighteen tracks beat 11 at the same price.
Of course, neither album reaches the early Pixies zenith (this means buy any of the first three Pixies albums before diving into Black’s solo work), but the purchases are worth it just to hear Black hauntingly slur out the word “bones” like he did so magnificently in the ’80s.