Black Days: Reexamining The Frank Black Years, Part One – Major Label Days
You can never fully appreciate something until it is gone or temporarily replaced. Depending on how stable the current union called Pixies is, Black Francis is either here to stay or, at least, for a while. The response to the new Pixies songs has been decidedly mixed, with some feeling it meets the standard set at the tail-end of the group during the Bossanova/Trompe Le Monde period. Others have been less generous, stating that it can never be Pixies without the inclusion of bassist Kim Deal — a situation exacerbated when recently Deal’s replacement, Kim Shattuck previously of the band The Muffs, was dispatched. The cause apparently was because she was getting too into the music and vibe onstage. The “official” statement implied that she didn’t understand the way Pixies do things. The picture received by the court of public opinion was that Deal had been correct in her decision to get away from Pixies, and Shattuck was the litmus test.
Through talking with some of his peers and co-conspirators during his solo efforts, one gets a much different impression of Black Francis/Frank Black — that he stays fairly loyal to those who work with him and extracts the best out of them when they are there. If not outright discrediting the notion of being difficult or dictatorial, it certainly causes one to look deeper into the current press service surrounding Pixies.
The frontman for the group has said on occasion that he became frontman because someone told him he screamed well. This is, in fact, the case and in the late-1980s this small band of art-damaged musicians created something of an underground cult. Their influence, though never directly seen at the top of the charts, was pervasive. Black Francis’ lyrics threw religious iconography, science fiction, sexual angst, and confusion into a Cuisinart and blended it to “high.” The result resided somewhere between cut-up beat poetry and stream-of-consciousness blurting. The sound, regularly a soft and propulsive lulling in the verse sections, exploding into rage in choruses, was endearing because it seemed so uninterested in being endearing. They were somehow a piece with the modern rock scene of the day. Pixies could appear on college radio right after an R.E.M. song (particularly in the IRS years) and few would flinch. When Kurt Cobain referenced them as a prime influence for Nirvana’s dynamic, it was obvious.
Far less obvious (but apparently not to Cobain) was Black Francis’ understanding of pop music. It came out occasionally and was taken to heart readily. We’re talking about tracks like “Here Comes Your Man”, “Monkey Gone To Heaven”, and “Alec Eiffel.” It was something that required exploration, and with inter-band tension building, 1991’s Trompe Le Monde would be the last of the Pixies, at least for a while.
Inside Charles Thompson: The inversion of Black Francis, frontman of Pixies, to Frank Black, who would span the following years exploring his own musical roots in unexpected ways, is probably one of the more clever stage-name flips seen in music. Without stating it up front, the change said everything you needed to know about what you were getting into. Frank Black is clearly the same guy you once knew, but there is a conventionality to the title that signaled more adherence to pop songcraft than before, and fewer instances where the Pixies button needed to be pushed.
It would seem bizarre to many during those latter Pixies albums that The Cars were cited as an influence, aside from the shared locality of Massachusetts, but that is seen in greater focus on the first two Frank Black solo records. Both are in many respects power pop creations with more than a hint of new wave thrown in. It is only a coincidence that both entities surfaced on Elektra Records; a point confirmed by former label and Popdose cohort Peter Lubin: “The two signings were years apart and during distinctly separate label regimes. Furthermore, I can honestly tell you that Elektra during the Bob Krasnow era (mid-80s to early 90s) had absolutely no interest (or at least very little interest when compared to other labels) in catering to radio. Our mission was to lead the way in music and let radio pick up on what we were doing.”
Around this same time, They Might Be Giants was about to release their first “full band” release John Henry on the label (their third, following Flood and Apollo 18). John Linnell is a frequent performer on the first Frank Black solo, providing saxophone. John Flansburgh directed the video for first single “Los Angeles.” “I remember that it was startling at the time to realize that in one of those years (1990?) we managed to have, I think, 5 Top Ten hits at ‘Alternative’ radio without ever really acknowledging the format – at least within the ranks of the A&R Department,” Lubin said. “You’d be amazed to know how little that aspect was discussed. I think the acts were Pixies, Billy Bragg, Cure, Happy Mondays, and TMBG.”
“As for Frank Black’s association with Linnell and Flansburgh, it was a close friendship for quite a few years already before the first FB solo album – not necessarily fostered by being label mates at Elektra, even though there was a palpable ‘family’ atmosphere at the label at the time,” Lubin said.
There’s a sense that Black had the right idea at the wrong time when it came to his approach on the Elektra records, for as he was forging ahead with his new identity and sound, the ghost of his former self would be propelling another band to megastardom, and would be setting back pop/rock for nearly a decade.
Frank Black – Trompe Le Monde came out in the year Nirvana blew up. The debut Frank Black came out the year In Utero appeared. Apart from a couple of tracks that had those rage-and-release moments that were emblematic of Pixies, this is a power pop/pop-rock record. It features a Beach Boys cover, or more appropriately a Beach Boys alternate, being the more critical original version of “I Know There’s An Answer” titled “Hang On To Your Ego.” It has a love song to The Ramones that is, in fact, a love song. It features what might be considered a new musical mission statement with the song “Old Black Dawning” and, for heaven’s sake, also has keyboards in a musical landscape now rejecting keys like grim death itself.
Those keys, along with the bass, were supplied by Eric Drew Feldman who was a natural fit to work with Black. Feldman was a member of the wildly eccentric Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band. “Don’t discount the role played by Eric Drew Feldman as FB’s producer in the turn toward a more “power pop” sound, as well as a lure for ‘the Johns’ to play on the record,” Peter Lubin added.
Feldman recounted how his involvement began. “I first met Charles at the Kilburn National Ballroom, London, in 1989. I was performing with the band, Pere Ubu, and we were supporting the Pixies. Charles introduced himself several hours before soundcheck. Pere Ubu had recently finished making a record that was produced by Gil Norton, who had also been producing the Pixies. At that time, I had not yet heard the Pixies. In any case, I found Charles to be a very pleasant human. A few months later the Pixies performed in San Francisco. Charles and I reconnected. I believe at this time, Charles first spoke of us working together on a solo record he was contemplating. I think I heard somewhere that Charles had spoken with Gil about producing this solo record, and Gil had recommended me for the position, based on our experience together with Ubu. In the meantime, Charles was occupied with making the Pixies album, Trompe le Monde, with the Pixies, and I ended up playing some keyboards on that.”
Much as Lubin alluded to, Feldman said there was no pressure or incentive to break Black out as a star or overtly away from Pixies. The goal was far more back-to-basics. “If there was this sort of pressure, I must have spent a lot of energy not noticing it. The engineer for Frank Black was the fabulous Al Clay, who did more of this sort of worrying, as he was more tuned into what people thought.
“I do recall a visit from Ivo Watts-Russell from 4AD after we had been recording for a few weeks. Everything we were doing was in a sort of shambolic state at this point, as it should have been! That is part of the process. But we stayed up all night before the 4ADers showed up to try to make things seem presentable to some degree,” Feldman said. “Good or bad, I don’t think I was fretting things too much because I was not lacking in any confidence that I could do this, and I just figured these people should have confidence that we could make a good record. After all, it was Black Francis, and the man can write and sing a song, for fuck’s sake.”
Feldman continued, “Songs roll off Charles like sweat. I never looked at these Frank Black records as trying to be pop, or avant-garde, or whatever. I was very naive (still am, I suppose) about that sort of thing. Anyway, I say, if you name it, you blow it, meaning that I don’t try to sound like the Rolling Stones or Stravinsky or the Archies. I was attempting to please Charles and myself, and to respect the songs. I wanted it to sound like Frank Black, and no one knew precisely what that was supposed to sound like. And if some of me got mixed into that sound, well, I didn’t mind, and some people might like that, and some people might not.”
When asked if his work with Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, was instructive when he started working with Black, Feldman’s response was definitive: “Ha! A natural candidate for what? With Mr. Van Vliet, I was trying my best to be an extension of his, and not my own, will. That was the job, and I was most grateful to have it. I was very much an appreciator of his art.
“As much as he would protest what I’m about to say, he had no clue as to how to make a record that a lot of humans would like. Or he wouldn’t do it, because it important to him that he like it.”
However, with Frank Black, the people involved made a record that a lot of humans could, and did, like. And it seemed that Black was having a lot of fun doing it.
Teenager Of The Year – If Frank Black wasn’t angst-y, surreal, or challenging enough to the modern rock crowd, they weren’t about to “get” Teenager Of The Year at all, and the record is all the better for it. Only in a few spots do you get the angst or sheer violence once associated with Black’s delivery. Instead we find him being playful on “Speedy Marie,” “Sir Rockaby” and “Fiddle Riddle.” Even the album cover intends to say, we’re having fun here. If you’re looking for the tray of eyeballs in ice, you’ve come to the wrong market.
We also find him fully embracing the pop-rock that was so apparent on the previous record. “Calistan,” “Fazer Eyes” and predominantly “Headache” all rise as possible contenders.
Feldman said that, much like the Frank Black sessions, that was more about the mood in the air and not a conscious direction. “I don’t remember specific feelings about most of them, except that I thought most all of them were pretty fucking good. I did experience hearing the song “Headache” playing in a popular San Francisco bar when Teenager of the Year first came out, and literally everyone in the joint was singing the chorus along with the jukebox. I think I thought that was a hit song. I remember being quite protective of the arrangement and sound of that song. That song helped me start trusting the soul of a song more than before. That doing less to it is more, more or less.”
“When we make records and people don’t like them as much as I think they should, I don’t like the songs less. One just moves on,” Feldman said.