As leader of the Pixies (gloriously off-the-wall garage-punk band, for the two of you who don’t know), Black Francis had a big influence on Nirvana and many other grunge bands who went on to gain far more commercial success.
Since going solo under the name of Frank Black, he has continued to keep up a prolific recording schedule of more or less an album a year for over a decade, while maintaining a consistently high quality level.
This ‘best of’ album shows just what an impressive back catalogue he has. The first disc features 22 tracks from Black’s nine solo albums from 1993 to 2003 (many of them with his backing band The Catholics), but does not include any songs from his last two country-influenced albums recorded in Nashville since then. It ends with a new song called Threshold Apprehension, taken from his Bluefinger album due for release later in 2007.
The second disc contains nine songs recorded live in the US at the end of last year, including several cover versions on which Black stamps his own unmistakable personality.
As usual when following such a well-loved and much-respected band as The Pixies, making it on your own is not easy and comparisons will always be made – ask Paul Weller or Morrissey. But Black shows he has moved on from the manic brilliance of The Pixies to a more measured craftsmanship without losing his edge.
True, the schizophrenic shifts in tone have evened out somewhat, the guitar sound is not so distorted and the primal screaming has been largely replaced by melodic singing, even if the lyrics remains as undecipherable as ever. But though the sound has gradually become more clean cut and less quirky, Black is still miles away from the mainstream – thankfully, high-octane alternative blood still surges through his veins.
The opening track Los Angeles from his debut eponymous album is a heavy grungy number, followed by perhaps the most Pixies-sounding song, Tenpercenter, with its offbeat chord changes. The Old Black Dawning has the familiar Black references to the Bible and the solar system, while the surreal nuttiness of (I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain is suggested in the title.
The driving rhythm of You Ain’t Me is matched by the pumping beat of I Gotta Move. I Don’t Want to Hurt You (Every Single Time) is a mellow ballad, but Hermaphroditos gets the pulse racing and Threshold Apprehension is Black sounding like an angry young man again – this bodes well for the forthcoming new album.
Black and his band sound really sharp and up for it on the live tracks. There are interesting takes on Roxy Music‘s Remake/Remodel and Christian singer-songwriter Larry Norman‘s Six Sixty Six, while a more rootsy approach can be heard on the harmonica-accompanied, bluesy Nadine and the country-inflected All Around the World and Horrible Day.
Overall this album is strong evidence that there is indeed life after The Pixies – Black is not just still alive but kicking, with an arresting mixture of apocalyptic violence softened by moments of sublime sweetness. Commercial success may have proved just as elusive as a solo artist but Black has always been more interested in following his own creative instincts: he is a true maverick. Long may he continue thus quixotically – and roll on the promised new Pixies album.