Live Review: Frank Blackby Mitch Goldman
Masquerade, Atlanta, GA 3/2/96
Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Black Francis, a.k.a. Frank Black) has wisely jettisoned the keyboardy-novelty approach he used on his first post-Pixies solo LP Frank Black, and is continuing to mine the hard-rock/pop/glam vein he revelled in so gloriously on 1994's Teenager of the Year. This year's model, The Cult of Ray (a reference to science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury) is more of the same . . . cryptic lyrics, noisy guitar-based pop, and Chuck's trademark yells and soaring high vocals. Chuck has succeeded in making records that approach the unique pop appeal of the Pixies' outstanding body of work.
Showcasing material from all three solo lp's, Chuck and his three piece back up band flat-out rocked their way through a seventy minute set at Atlanta's Masquerade club. His strength as a master pop songwriter was evident in the material . . . from the opener "The Marsist" through Teenager's opening trilogy of tunes ("Whatever Happened to Pong?" "Thallasocracy" and "(I Want to Live on An) Abstract Plain"), Black showed his ability to capture enigmatic portraits in screaming rock terms. "Abstract Plain" is a perfect example . . . over a gorgeous mid-tempo melody, Black sings, literally, about leaving the concrete material world for an abstract one . . . when he describes his "abstract house" it comes complete with, of course, an "abstract mouse." Black's twisted pop worldview falls somewhere in the middle ground between the quirkiness of They Might Be Giants and the decadence of mid-'70s David Bowie. Ultimately though, the lyrics are subverted by the huge sound and feel of Chuck's unerring pop sense . . . some of his melodies are so rich and vivid you feel like you're diving head-first into a world of melodic depth. In "Superabound" (from Teenager), the shaven-headed Black sang "I superabound/But I've still got nothing to do". Black's melodies are everywhere, and are an end in themselves; the semantic meaning of the lyrics is fully subverted by the flow of pop song structures.
Black and band plowed through 22 tunes with barely a break (and with no encore; as the strains of "Announcements," an obscure B-side and the set closer, faded, the sound system jumped into a recording of Bowie's "Five Years," the perfect bookend to Chuck's set); the momentum of the set clearly reminded me of the heyday of Pixies' live shows. Abandoning a keyboard player live (and using few keys on Cult of Ray), Black's band played with a guitar-driven fury that belied the pop sheen of Chuck's songwriting. Earlier tunes like "Brackish Boy" were transformed from novelty numbers to full-blown rockers; new tunes like "Dance War" and "The Creature Crawling" upped the sonic ante on their studio versions; and two B-sides (or "Eurosides" as Black announced them, referring to their appearance on European CD singles) sounded as good as any album cuts. The set ending "Announcements," in fact, is better than most of the tunes on Ray . . . with an almost-British Invasion vocal part, "Announcements" floated out of the PA on a cloud of rich melodicism.
Chuck's onstage appearance is definitely getting scarier. He's totally shaved his head (did Billy Corgan give him this idea?) and he's more rotund than ever. But despite his near-Buddha-like looks, Black is clearly as talented a rocker and songwriter as ever. While former Pixies bandmate Kim Deal may have achieved more popular success with her band The Breeders, Chuck, as Frank Black, has proven that he was the real engine driving the Pixies. Without his quirky pop-infected vision, the Pixies would have been just another pre-alternative Boston band. Chuck can write great songs, and play them onstage with a full-out rock assault; that's a winning combination with or without the Pixies.