Put Up Your Dukes: Frank Black Vs. The Pixies

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Two of MAGNET’s Matts—editor Matthew Fritch and writer Matt Ryan—go to the mat to see whose opinion is more correct. Today’s topic: “Bone Machine” vs. Bluefinger, “Nimrod’s Son” vs. Teenager Of The Year, Black Francis vs. Frank Black. Put up your dukes!

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

I have to say, the Pixies reunion never sat well with me. The band certainly deserves all its posthumous acclaim and enduring popularity, but there’s something untoward about the summer-festival cash grabs. Plus, there’s the new boxed set, Minotaur, which should’ve been titled Gouge Away. I think the price tag reaches $450 if you get the edition with all the bells and whistles. Even if I wasn’t being the vintner at the Sour Grapes Winery where the Pixies making bank is concerned, I have a debate-worthy point to make: Frank Black’s body of solo work now surpasses the relatively brief spurt of creativity he experienced with the Pixies. From his output with the Catholics to Grand Duchy and back to Black Francis again, he’s become more diverse, a better songwriter and a better vocalist. What’s up with these fools clamoring to hear “Where Is My Mind?” for the umpteenth time?

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch

First of all, “summer-festival cash grab” is a bit harsh. These guys aren’t the Eagles charging $150 per ticket so Don Henley can buy a third Ferrari. Did you see LoudQUIETLoud, the documentary about the Pixies reunion? Christ, until this tour, David Lovering was a real life Gob, doing magic tricks to eke out a living. And who the hell knows what Joey Santiago was doing to feed himself. Anyway, back to the matter at hand, you claim that Frank Black is still doing solo work? I stopped paying attention after his ’93 self-titled release, which included his only memorable post-Pixies tune, “Los Angeles” (remember that bitchin’ hovercraft?). I’m being facetious, of course. I’m aware of Mr. Black’s substantial solo catalog. I had to stop listening, however, due to extensive forehead bruising; I only get about two songs into the likes of Honeycomb and fall face down onto my desk in a state of catatonic boredom. Here’s a suggestion: Play the aforementioned record’s “Selkie Bride,” followed by Surfer Rosa’s “Bone Machine.” Compare. That should end this debate immediately.

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

I’m glad you brought up LoudQUIETLoud. That was the documentary about four people who do not like to be in a room together, right? It bummed me out in the same way that End Of The Century did, learning that the Ramones—for me, the quintessential band unit, from the uniforms to the faux-brotherhood—mostly hated each other. Creative tension is one thing, but passive-aggressive dysfunction is painful to watch. I don’t have a comeback for your Honeycomb jab. Well, I sort of do—it’s called Bossanova and it’s almost 25 percent of the Pixies’ output. Honeycomb and Frank Black’s rootsy phase, circa 2002-2006, wasn’t my favorite, either, but there’s plenty of other discs on the shelf. I’ll save the gory details for an Over/Under piece, but Frank Black has made three great albums: Teenager Of The Year, Dog In The Sand and Petits Four (by Grand Duchy, his duo with wife Violet Clark). They’re all very different from each other—the first is a sprawling punk masterpiece, the second is surreal and Stonesy, and the third is synth-enabled pop—and they’re spread out over more than a decade. Sometimes it takes a while to get where you’re going. What kind of range did the Pixies have? Oh, we already mentioned it: loud, quiet, loud.

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch

I agree, the documentary was painful viewing. I hear Metallica’s therapist is available; maybe they should give him a call. Teenager Of The Year is a better than average rock n’ roll album. Punk? Not so much. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t remember what Dog In The Sand sounded like until I just pulled it off my shelf a few minutes ago. I suspect I listened to it a few times in 2000 when the CD came out and it has been collecting dust ever since. It’s certainly not a bad record, but there’s just not much here to keep a listener coming back (plus, I could rattle off 20 bands that have done a better job aping the Stones). I think part of the problem is that Charles Frank Black Francis Thompson actually tries to sing on his solo material. While he’s electrifying when screeching, moaning and shouting obscenities in Spanish, as a traditional singer, he’s positively narcotic (and not in a good way). Grand Douchey (did I spell that right?) suffers from the same affliction. Black’s and his wife’s tone-deaf crooning make for painful—and painfully boring—listening. Back to the Pixies, I’m not going to go on and on about how Bossanova was an underrated entry in their canon (mostly because I wasn’t crazy about it myself). Such a defense is unnecessary, however, as the strength of Come On Pilgrim, Surfer Rosa and Doolittle render any other catalog nitpicking irrelevant. These were seminal releases, influencing countless bands. How many imitators has solo Frank Black spawned?

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

“Grand Douchey.” You are on fire today! Yeah, Violet Clark doesn’t have the virtuoso pipes of, say, Kim Deal. And just so I have it straight: You think it’s bad that Frank Black sings well and you also deduct points because his wife sings poorly? Maybe you should get that bruise on your forehead checked out. Speaking of mental lapses, I meant to write “pop/punk” in reference to Teenager Of The Year. I think it was writer Dennis Cooper who extolled it as the greatest album of all time in one of his essays, but I could be mistaken. It’s not on the Internet, but you’ll just have to trust me that some people out there really like it. I’m sorry Frank Black’s solo material hasn’t spawned imitators the way the Pixies did: Bush, Veruca Salt, please don’t make me think of more. You might want to sit down for this next thing I’m going to point out, but … Frank Black is Black Francis! He sings the same way! Not all the time, but he still screeches, shouts and sings in Spanish. Until you give me a specific advantage the Pixies have over the solo stuff (an acceptable answer might be: “Joey Santiago’s surf-rock guitar”), I think you’re just hung up on the Pixies brand name or are too lazy to keep up with the apparently unfashionable Frank Black.

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch

I see that reading for comprehension isn’t your strong suit. Where did I say that Frank Black sings well? I said that I liked him better in the Pixies when he sang like a howler monkey with its tail caught in a blender. Although not a good singer in the traditional sense, Black Francis was never boring. (OK, so maybe he was a little bit boring on Bossanova.) And he doesn’t sing the same now; that’s my point. I defy you to name one song Frank Black has done in the past decade where his vocals resemble those of the Pixies era. As to the advantages you seek, yes, there’s Joey Santiago’s surf guitar. Kim Deal’s valley-girl vocals. David Lovering’s Herculean drumming (see “Something Against You” for reference). Memorable songs. Should I go on? And I told you, I’m trying to keep up with Frank Black, but he keeps putting me to sleep. So, to quote Black Francis, “You fuckin’ die!” Oh, P.S., with regard to Pixies imitators, you may have heard of a little band called Nirvana?

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

Nirvana. Well played. Treat yourself to a sliced-up eyeball. Don’t you find the Pixies’ lyrics self-consciously “weird,” like the journal entries of a high-school goth who just discovered surrealism and all kinds of French stuff? You don’t have to answer that. I know you’ll counter with the fact that Frank Black once sang about UFOs or something. I’d like to point out that “Black Suit” from Grand Duchy’s album features some Black Francis screaming. I guess that didn’t wake you up from your suspended-animation Pixies coma. I may not have been able to help you here today, but maybe some readers out there will unchain themselves from the “Bone Machine” and check out what’s been happening the past two decades. Oh, and thanks for telling me to “fuckin’ die.” I didn’t think I’d get that kind of vitriol until my friends and family showed up in the comments section.

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12 Comments

  1. ES
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Poor ol Frank, gets little credit, though indeed, hit and miss. But, I’m sure the young Francis would be envious of the aged Monsieur Black’s melancholic/snotty vocal and his band’s (live to two track) outro on Show Me Your Tears opener Nadine

  2. LS
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I’m going to go ahead and venture that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle…

    I do empathize with Frank Black, however. For a man who has had a solid enough solo career to certainly not only perpetuate itself but reach good critical acclaim, and a number of really great solo works, he can just barely escape being Frank Black (formerly Black Francis of The Pixies) to some people. Seeing him live and hearing everyone shout names of Pixies songs makes it seem like everyone forgets this and almost seems disrespectful, even if you yourself would love to see it happen. Frank Black has just had the unfortunate fortune of a groundbreaking albeit short-lived debut followed by a good, prolific solo career.

  3. Posted July 2, 2009 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    While the truth may indeed fall somewhere in the middle, you definitley missed some of Frank’s best solo material. Show Me Your Tears was the best and most definitive album of the Catholic’s era not too mention the first self titled Catholics album. It may not sound like the Pixies, but there is plenty of screaming and some exceptional song writing. And Fast Man Raider Man maybe a little bit long for my liking, but there at least 10 great songs on there. That’s always been Frank’s problem though. He just writes too many songs. Look at Black Letter Days and Devil’s workshop. They were released on the same day and totaled something like 30 songs. Should he be penalized for that? Some day there will be artists with top 40 hits that are covers of this catalogue and nobody will give him credit there either. And for recent material that is as heavy as the Pixies, have you listened to Blue Finger? Tight Black Rubber? SVN Fingers? God, the Cult of Ray??? This stuff could have been the Pixies if they weren’t too afraid to record another album with “The Man”. JB

  4. Rrrandy
    Posted July 4, 2009 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    His career could have been with the Pixies the whole time and some
    of the same songs he has written since the 90’s would have come
    out as Pixies’ music and who knows how different the world would
    have been. The guy is a gracious artist we all seem to dig his stuff,
    but hey ‘things happen for a reason’ -a good phrase and the only one
    I know that truly explains tragedy and truly bad art: ..there must be reason
    for it…somebody probably likes it.
    It’s like that stupid pitch-shifting vocal thing you hear in a lot of crap
    music these days and in ads BLLEECCH -but hey I guess somebody’s
    groovin’.
    I do like a majority of his solo and Catholics’ work and of course the Pixies
    catalogue -and I must say I enjoyed the above article, Thanks

  5. Russ
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    If Matt Ryan’s best argument is that The Pixies aren’t quite as big a money grubbing band as The Eagles, he should have stopped typing immediately. I was/is a major Pixies fan, but Frank’s solo/post-Pixie bands are great, both in song quality and recording technique. He reminds me a bit of J Mascis; not the sweetest guy at the dinner table, but a journeyman that isn’t sitting on his hands trying to figure out how to rewrite Pixies hits for a few shillings. If he ever pulls Ryan Adams ‘fart on vinyl and release it approach’, I’ll modify my comments as needed.

  6. Ben
    Posted July 7, 2009 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I find myself revisiting Dog in the Sand and Show Me Your Tears more than any of the Pixies efforts. In general, I’d say the post-Pixies stuff has been more favorable to me – probably because there’s just more of it. The Pixies are just one part of a great music career.

    Speaking of the Pixies, I’d definitely say Surfer Rosa was their worst record; not to say it’s a bad record. Most of the songs are great, but the hit:miss ratio is higher than any of their other stuff. Something Against You? Yuck. Bossanova is fantastic and doesn’t have a stinker on it.

    Frank Black Francis does have a great scream, and I’m glad to say he still uses it. But if he only stuck to that, it would get old fast. His voice is still fairly unique and makes almost all of his catalog a joy to listen to.

  7. JoeMachine
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Fritch for the win.

  8. Curt Rowdy
    Posted July 13, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading a comment from Black Francis about the Pixies reunion tour about how nice it was to have somebody else tune his guitar for a change. I’m all about the Pixies reunion if it means they get the accolades (and cash) they deserve for buttering the bread for so many bands long after their dissolution (i.e. Weezer). They kept most ticket prices under $50 and played a great set. It was definitely aged, but mostly for the better with a much higher quality reunion show than say, Stone Temple Pilots (blech!). More power to the Pixies if they want to make some house payments. I’m a satisfied customer (2x). The “Modern-Day Gob” comment is just too funny (but sadly true). On a side note, Teenager of the Year is absolutely the best album ever, seriously.

  9. Posted July 31, 2009 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t see why people bother having this argument. This is one body of work and people (mostly pro-pixies types, I’ve noticed) act like these songs were written by two different people. The stage names being different doesn’t change the fact that these songs were all written by the same man, and in my opinion it’s pretty easy to notice. If you love the Pixies songs for the actual song writing and not whatever superficial or aesthetic cool factor goes along with them and haven’t really given Frank Black a chance you are really denying yourself something you will love.

  10. Posted August 15, 2009 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to hear some affirmation from other fans re: Frank Black’s career. I’m tired of people who shout, “play Gigantic!” during a Grand Duchy show. Or John Mendelssohn’s lame book “The Pixies and Frank Black.” Why bother to write a book about it, if the last album he enjoyed was Doolittle?!

    In ’94, you could call me behind the times. I didn’t know the Pixies, and heard his solo stuff before I heard their albums. In ’09 I could say that anyone who’s heard less than fifty of Frank Black’s solo songs are behind the times. Or are not part of this discussion.

  11. Vincent Jones
    Posted October 31, 2009 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    A lot of interesting comments put out there. Personally, i’m of the opinion that much of his solo catalogue has been underrated. Criticism of ‘Honeycomb’ is un – justified. The album is a ‘grower’ and needs multiple listens to be appreciated. Why shoot the guy for doing something different? Similarily, Fast Man Raider Man has plenty of good tracks on it. Lyrically, he’s better than ever.

    I agree that it’s a shame people still shout for ‘Pixies’ songs at his solo gigs. Since then, he has moved in many different directions recording a lot of fantastic music. I also agree that ‘Teenager of The Year’ is a masterpiece. Not a dud on it, and as fresh as it was in 94. It’s as good as anything ‘Pixies’ did. People don’t have the patience for FB without the band, it’s a shame cause they don’t know what their missing.

  12. tyler
    Posted March 4, 2010 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Dog in the Sand is a masterpiece.

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