This summer sees not only the release of two fine albums by Frank Black, but the inevitable official release of the other nine Come On Pilgrim-era recordings by the legendary Pixies
. Which of these will sell more records?
The smart money is on the Pixies songs; despite most of these songs having found their way onto other albums (and the concomitant implication that the band considered those latter versions definitive), and despite the fact that it was selectiveness that made Pilgrim so utterly perfect, every indie kid worth his or her salt will snap The Pixies up like free Strokes tickets. Meanwhile, the guy who wrote those songs has cranked out about thirty new ones, and while it's a good bet they will sell reasonably well, I don't foresee Devil's Workshop and Black Letter Days breaking any sales records.
I assume it must be disheartening to be in this position, where tracks that didn't seem good enough to be released fifteen years ago are likely to outsell new work you're pretty proud of, but if so, Mr. Thompson can take refuge in this thought: he has finally made up for The Cult of Ray.
Black has sounded far more comfortable with his sound ever since Dog In The Sand, and the tightness that The Catholics' core lineup has developed seems to have done wonders for his songwriting abilities as well. Dog saw the introduction of pseudo honky-tonk piano and pedal steel country tones into the standard Black mix of quirky rockers and slightly askew ballads; it turns out that fleshing out the mix (as opposed to the stripped-down experiments of Ray and the first Catholics album) work much better for the FB of the new millennium.
Both albums were recorded live in the studio, one after the other. For a while, rumor had it that Black was going to release a double album, but on reflection this was the right choice; each of these discs is coherent, and mixing the songs would have yielded a considerably muddier vision.
Black Letter Days was the first to be laid down, and its eighteen tracks pad the disc to twice the length of Devil's Workshop. Black is bookended by two distinct covers of the Tom Waits classic "The Black Rider": one is a guitar rave-up with fuzzy bass, and the other is a laid-back organ-driven surf take. Both would probably make Waits curl his grizzled mug into a horrible rictus of a smile. The rest of the album is generally strong, but as you might expect, the sheer number of tracks means there's a sizeable dollop of filler. Strong points include "California Bound" and "Chip Away Boy", both of which are Black doing his thing at top form. Equally good, and with a brilliant additional layer of pedal steel, is "End Of Miles", the kind of self-assured straight-ahead rock song that truly great songwriters tend to conjure up at will as they reach their middle years. In fact, most of the rest of the album is quite good, so let's turn to the exceptions.
Weak points on Black Letter include "How You Went So Far", which leaps for pensive but lands on meandering; "1826", which relies on one power-rock riff and odd time signatures to fill out nearly seven minutes (to be fair, it has some great guitar work at the end and probably rocks live); "I Will Run After You", which is about precisely what you would assume, and never builds up a head of steam; "True Blue", which doesn't work for reasons that I can't really define; and "21 Reasons", the chorus and verse of which don't mesh (further, neither is particularly great).
That's quite a few songs with which to have a quibble, and the album does lose a bit of steam as it approaches the end, but the fact that it sports over a dozen really cool moments of rock bliss says a lot in its favor.
Devil's Workshop, the latter-recorded (and presumably, the less-planned-out) of the two releases is, on the other hand, virtually devoid of sub-par material. It opens with a revamped, newly lyricized version of the Pixies B-side "Velvety Instrumental", rechristened "Velvety". It's smashing, and inaugurates a wave of goodness, from the gnashing of teeth in "Out of State"'s grand chorus to the subtle, perfect key change that makes "Bartholomew", to the half-assedly swamp rock guitar tones of "Heloise", to the unmitigated brilliance of "Whiskey In Your Shoes", this is one tight little record.
If you're just picking up one, I'd lean toward Devil's Workshop, if only because it presents such a skip-free tour through the reasons that Frank Black is something of a songwriting legend. Black Letter, though it features more missteps, is also more ambitious, and with some deft track-forward presses, can do a reasonable impression of a perfect album. If you squint.
It's impressive enough that, well into the second decade of his career, Black is still so prolific. It's far more notable that he still displays more talent than nearly any member of the hordes he has inspired.