Like the Grinch who stole Christmas only to give it all back again, Frank Black is no longer the snarling, Biblical banshee that screamed of Uriah hitting the crapper. Thought Honeycomb was a fluke? Think again – this is Charles Thompson on a moonlit veranda, not a beer-soaked stage.
That, however, is not necessarily a criticism in itself. Last year’s Honeycomb LP might have had Pixies fanatics scratching their heads as to what ever happened to Black Francis, but it was consistently good; refreshingly devoid of the occasional filler that crops up now and then throughout the Frank Black back catalogue.
Like last year’s country opus, Fast Man Raider Man sees Charles take to the studio with all manner of country illuminaries. This time, it seems, his awe has melted into comfort, as bold tracks announce themselves with toe-tapping regularity across the two discs: from the curious verse / resolute chorus of If Your Poison Gets You to Fare Thee Well’s Chuck Berry-ish cheerful jaunt, this is Honeycomb with a nutty filling.
In the course of 27 tracks there are notable highlights, of course: You Can’t Crucify Yourself bears witness to Frank’s return to lyrical form (“You can’t crucify yourself, no, that takes two / Maybe you could use some help, and if you do – just say you do”); Dirty Old Town features a whisky-flavoured duet with Johnny Cash soundalike Marty Brown; Dog Sleep resurrects the melancholy of 2001’s Show Me Your Tears with a distinctly baudeville twist.
The second disc, in fact, commences with In The Time Of My Ruin, the driving, layered progression of which will have you wondering when you last had your attention so forcefully grasped by a Frank Black track. His voice resonates to its loudest levels for years (Pixies reformation excluded), announcing that, yes, this is a double album, but you’re going to bloody well sit there and enjoy it.
And it’s an assertion that – to a certain extent, at least – rings true. The overall impression of disc two, indeed, is that the percussion brushes previously prominent were bumped in favour of honest-to-goodness drumsticks; the pianos not so much caressed as jabbed; the guitars not so much weeping as talking loudly. Highway To Lowdown, for instance, sounds like a refined reassertion of a Catholics number; Elijah saunters confidently into rock territory, complete with foot-to-the-floor guitar solos and a wall-shaking chorus; Kiss My Ring is as riotous as country gets.
Thereafter, unfortunately, the country-tinted tracks begin to merge into one another, proving that, yes, you can have too much of a good thing. To be fair, the second half of disc two is probably as strong as the rest of Fast Man Raider Man, the problem being that twenty-odd tracks have already seeped from the speakers, and none of the final handful seem to have the spark that cropped up earlier on (Fare Thee Well excepted).
So while it’s hard to criticise Frank for having improved upon his last, well-received solo effort – and fair to compliment a good job well done – there must be a reason why good only becomes great from time to time: at 27 tracks, Fast Man Raider Man is simply too long, and, as such, a dilution. A four star album in a three star guise, perhaps Charles is becoming indulgent after all these years…