The Black rider’s raucous road trips
Frank Black, a.k.a. Black Francis, born Charles Thompson, continues a trend set this year by such underground rock luminaries as Tom Waits, Bob Mould and Paul Westerberg, by releasing two albums at once -the addicting “Black Letter Days” and the slightly sagging “Devil’s Workshop.”Frank Black – like Mould and Westerberg – was once the frontman of a neo-punk, college-rock cult band. Mould headed up Husker Du, Westerberg fronted the Replacements, and Frank Black -then known as Black Francis -was at the center of the growling pop hurricane known as the Pixies.But if the Pixies were a snarling tropical storm toppling everything in their paths, Frank Black and the Catholics, on the two releases, are an afternoon thunderstorm that sweeps into a mountain valley and peters out after 20 minutes or so.Of the two, “Black Letter Days,” is by far the more interesting album. On some tunes, Frank Black gets about as melodic as Paul Simon; on others, there’s the searing, country-twang of a pedal steel guitar – two tones you never heard on the Pixies’ chaotic records.In an homage to one of his two-album predecessors, Frank Black opens “Black Letter Days” with a cover of the demonic Waits song, “The Black Rider.” Black also closes the album with a second version of the cover.Covering Bob Dylan and the Beatles is easy. But doing Waits is no laughing matter.Frank Black would get womped in a growling contest with the grizzled Waits, but there may not be another singer around who could even crawl into the same cage. And Frank Black, along with maybe Nick Cave, are about the only singers out there who should even dare to cover a song from Waits’ music of the last two decades.The next several songs keep the album chugging, from rambling punk, “California Bound,” to pure, sappy pop, “Chip Away Boy,” to grungy hardcore, “Black Letter Day,” to a lounge act, “Valentina & Garuda.”About midway through the album though, the once gripping gallery of sound gets scattered and it’s easy to be distracted while trying to listen to the last several songs, though tidbits leap out at you here and there.But they just leap, they don’t sink their teeth into you like a lot of the old Pixies songs. And “The Devil’s Workshop” never gets it hooks into at all.The traveling-themed album starts in a nebulous direction with the neo-Pixies tune, “Velvety,” where Black Francis takes a trip up interstate to the small California town of Weed. After that, the album stays bogged down and you start to get a little buried all the Frank Black. Particularly when you get to the slightly annoying song, “Bartholomew” and Frank Black’s once endearing squawking starts to become abrasive.”Devil’s Workshop,” is befuddled by all the grungy guitars, begins to sound pointless and irrelevant and never achieves the variety of sound that makes “Black Letter Days” interesting the first few listens.By the seventh track on “Devil’s Workshop,” called “Are You Headed My Way?” you started to feel battered by the power chords. By the next song, “Heloise,” you’re ready to give up and leave Frank Black to whatever dark episode he’s singing about.Neither album seems to have much staying power. “Black Letter Days” is the kind of record that can grab you and stay stuck in your CD player for a few weeks. But unless you’re a serious Frank Black fan, you probably won’t be slipping these discs into your stereo a year from now – though, if you have a 50- or 100-disc player, it’s always invigorating to have one or two Pixies records in the rotation.Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.