FrankBlackFrancis – S/T 2xCD

Whilst the Pixies’ reunification this year has been heralded as some kind of second coming, so far it’s only really been about consolidating a legacy, collecting just financial deserts, and trotting through the “hits” with the gusto of a band now loved in the present, not lost in the past. However, without any new material to speak of – unlike say the similarly reformed American Music Club or Mission of Burma – aside from an iTunes-only Kim Deal song “Bam Thwok” and a contribution to the current Warren Zevon tribute album – this “second coming” is still playing it stubbornly safe. And with the Pixies back catalogue barrel supposedly drained to its last drop with 4AD’s recent best-of compilation and DVD, the creative inertia is tangible and the pressure is clearly on Frank Black to extend his Pixies song canon. However, this oddly juxtaposed 2xCD affair of very old and relatively new solo recordings suggests that Frank Black has been slowly edging himself back into being “Black Francis” in anticipation of extending the Pixies revival beyond just sold-out arena tours.

Disc one of this set, Black Francis – Demo, is the oldest of Black’s known recordings, at least in releasable form. A rudimentary one man and his guitar “producer’s reference” demo cut in 1987, the day before the Pixies laid-down the legendary Purple Tape, which became 1987’s Come on Pilgrim debut mini-LP and 2002’s self-titled archival release on spinART and Cooking Vinyl. Listening to a more hirsute and svelte Black rip through songs the Pixies would later record and release all the way up to the group’s 1991 swansong Trompe Le Monde, with little more than tape hiss and an acoustic guitar to accompany him, is an engrossing trip. It’s amazing to hear just how fully formed the songs were; Black even chips in the odd verbal instructions to producer Gary Smith about how/when the rest of the band should add in their distinctive parts, showing that his dictatorial approach was largely worthwhile. Consequently though, there aren’t too many surprises here, and nothing really surpasses the finished band versions. Though fans will drool over of the previously unreleased “Boom Chickaboom” in all its ragged 50s rockabilly-folk fuzz and several performances do really set the speakers on fire (notably “The Holiday Song,” “Rock a My Soul,” and “Subbacultcha”).

Disc 2, Frank Black Francis – Treated, is, however, far less guaranteed of instant Pixies fan-approval. Opting to re-record 13 Pixies songs with the accompaniment of Andy Diagram and Keith Moliné (otherwise known as David ‘Pere Ubu’ Thomas’ backing duo, Two Pale Boys) is by Black’s own sleeve-noted admission, “messing with the gospel.” Transposing Pixies standards into the Two Pale Boys’ avant-garde pop world is certainly a risk, but it’s a risk that is courageously worth taking. Moreover, it’s better that Frank Black disembowels his own songs rather some horrid remixers or some snotty upstarts looking to cop some retro credo.

Some remoudlings work astonishingly well; “Caribou,” “Nimrod’s Son,” and “Levitate Me” sound great as Tom Waits-meets-Tortoise space-rock baroque numbers with Diagram’s well-deployed brass adornments and Black’s emphatic vocals. “Into the White,” previously sung by Kim Deal, works fittingly as a gender-realigned blues mangle, and “Velouria” becomes an oddly touching torch-ballad. Things get stranger and a little more strained with the Mariachi brass swing through “The Holiday Song” and on the closing 15-minute lo-fi deconstruction/demolition of “Planet of Sound”. Throughout this second disc, Black’s vocals are notably stronger and his lyrics more clearly entertaining than they’ve been on any of his recent solo albums, but then he is working with stronger source material this time around. A few things don’t make the grade of course. The electronic doodling on “Where is My Mind?” is rather ill-fitting, “Subbacultcha” is done no favours with its cod-afro-beat make-over, and the new version of “Wave of Mutilation” tries to be spooky but comes across as just a poor cousin of the Pixies’ own slow-mo B-side rendering.

Overall, what could have been yet another cash-cow milker actually turns out to be a curious and compelling piece of therapy for Frank Black as a writer and performer. Hopefully by joining up – as he has done here – his multiple pre/past/post/current Pixies personas he can re-summon the songwriting magic he lost over a decade ago -which makes the prospect of a new Pixies album in 2005 a far less daunting prospect for us all. The pressure is still on, but at least the life signs are the best they’ve been in aeons for this erstwhile mercurial master of the strange and the sublime.