Frank Black Francis/
Fast Man Raider Man
Black Francis releases three more records that were not previously issued on vinyl: Frank Black Francis, Honeycomb and Fast Man Raider Man. Nick Fisk finds things to like about the first of these, but he is not particularly taken by the other two, despite being reluctant to criticise the indie-rock icon.
On the day these three records arrived in the post for me to review (a tad late), I took myself off five miles up the road from my home town of Cardiff to Caerphilly where I’d seen that a good old fashioned record fair was taking place in Caerphilly’s indoor market.
This you could say highlighted the unglamorous side of record collecting. In recent years, there has been an attempt to make the pastime seen as sexier. There were, as you might expect, a few older men pottering about, browsing. There were the usual hotchpotch of not especially interesting, fairly uncollectable, mostly more commercial records. Any salesman is going to struggle to sell off these kinds of records because I think the people who are mostly fascinated by the vinyl revival will tend towards collecting records by alternative artists, although exactly is meant by alternative has been blurred more recently.
I picked out the picture disc of World of Twist’s Sons of the Stage, a particular favourite record of mine, and found myself having to explain who they were to the guy selling the record. I said that they were a Manchester band. “Like Oasis you mean?” the guy said and so I had to inform him that they pre-dated Oasis. I think he was probably just disappointed when I told him I already owned the record. You would think any salesman worth his salt would know a bit about the product he was selling.
One noteworthy aspect of this particular record fair was that one of the sellers had a fairly large collection of new editions. Except in the case of records that have not previously been released on vinyl, I think he is also going to struggle to sell these records as generally people will prefer to own the original issues.
These three Frank Black albums all fall into the category of only previously having been released on CD. Back when they were released, with the digital age upon us, it might have seemed inexplicable that ten or fifteen years down the line there might be any kind of clamour for the release of the vinyl editions. And I do wonder exactly how much longer the craze will continue.
To go through them in the order they were originally released, Frank Black Francis came out originally around the time that Pixies first got back together in 2004. This consists of one LP of demos of Pixies songs recorded before the band had even gone into the studio in 1987, and then an album of what could be described as remixes of Pixies songs.
Although a few of the songs on the first record, such as Rock A My Soul, did not appear on any of the main official Pixies albums (this track does appear on an album I’ve only recently heard about simply titled Pixies which has songs from some of the earliest Pixies recordings), I believe all the tracks have been previously released in some guise, so the interest here is more that they are very early solo recordings (and here, on vinyl for the first time!).
An old cliché that used to get bandied about quite a bit was that if a song cannot be played on an acoustic guitar, it’s not a proper song. I’m sure there are plenty of bands (My Bloody Valentine as one example) who probably quite easily disprove this theory, but Frank Black here pretty ably demonstrates that most of his early songs are pretty enjoyable with just him and his guitar. The versions on this record apparently were, in the main, recorded simply into a walkman, but the sound quality is still decent enough and it is nice to hear the original raw recordings.
The second disc, dubbed the Treated Disc, is far more curious. I think this is what Black Francis himself might describe as “goofing around”. Remix albums can of course be very hit and miss. The Stone Roses remix album is one I would describe as frankly appalling.
This one is almost comic at times with the harshness of the Pixies’ sound being messed around, and with, a bit bizarrely, trumpets courtesy of Two Pale Boys. You hear all kinds of weird other arrangements by various acts these days – Daft Punk played by an orchestra, Ibiza classics similarly reworked. Given that these re-workings were originally recorded in 2003, ever the trailblazer, Black Francis might have got in there before many others. A track that pre-dated this record would be the Mike Flowers Pops whacky version of Wonderwall, which I wonder exactly what Oasis themselves made of. I suppose given that this album features Black Francis himself, we can be assured at least that he has given his seal of approval.
On Nimrod’s Son, typically caricature in style, amid slightly psychedelic keyboard effects, the phrase “you are the son of a motherfucker” seems to stand out more as an inappropriate line in this tamer version while the line “the joke has come upon me” might reflect the fact that this is Francis taking the piss. Wave of Mutilation, again with a few trippy sound effects, is more in keeping with the acoustic version that Pixies do often prefer to now play live. The take on Holiday Song could be described as the bandstand version – you can imagine a summer’s day with pensioners dancing around picnics to it, blissfully unaware that the composers of the song have probably at various times all been told they’re going to hell.
Right at the end of the record is a track that definitely can be taken seriously – a fourteen-minute long version of Planet of Sound with guitars quite obviously borrowed from The Velvet Underground, who have probably been an influence on Pixies throughout their career. For me, this is as good an extended re-working of a song as the Superchumbo mix of Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On. Incredible that this track, which takes up just over half of Side D, did not even get a mention in the couple of reviews of the original version I glanced at – did they not even listen to the whole record properly?! This track really is a thing to behold and I would absolutely love to hear this as part of a full Pixies set.
For the other two records in this re-issue series, Frank Black appears to be going into “wanting to be taken seriously as an artist” mode. It seems to be a path so many rock artists have taken – John Lydon in PiL or later versions of Paul Weller being two examples. I’m struggling to think of an artist who has gone “more alternative” as a solo artist – Robbie Williams perhaps (though he could hardly have gone any tamer than when in Take That)? I can imagine the conversations these people might have had with their manager: “Look…………, we need you to tone it down a little – you’re getting older, perhaps you should consider appealing more to Radio 2 listeners?”
To be honest, I really don’t have much to report about either of these records. The word “pleasant” would adequately sum them both up. The sound of each is reminiscent of Van Morrison or Leonard Cohen: two singers synonymous with this style. Honeycomb was apparently recorded in Nashville shortly after the Pixies reformed – I never quite got why Frank Black continued to put out solo records once the band had reformed; quite an unusual thing to do. It was some time before we got the first new Pixies release – there might have been something about how they did not want to put anything out until they were happy with the quality and that it would please fans.
Apparently Frank Black had for some time wanted to record a form of “Black on Blonde”. If it was not for this desire of his, you might almost imagine that a record of this ilk would, to quote another cliché, be one that he recorded to simply fulfil his record company’s contractual obligations.
It was apparently with $1000 of his father’s money that the Pixies first recording sessions were paid for. Honeycomb has the feel of a record that might be meant to meet with parental approval after years of, to Pixies fans’ minds, pleasant weirdness.
I believe Pixies have always been more successful in the UK than in their home country, but I think an album of this kind is definitely more suited to the American market. Wikipedia lists it as falling into the genre of Americana and Southern Soul.
There is a quite nice duet with his ex-wife, Strange Goodbye on the first song of the b-side. When she begins singing, for a brief moment I thought it might be Frank Black singing and my record player was playing at the wrong speed! I have a very nice, quite old direct drive auto-return turntable but it does have a slight fault whereby sometimes there is a problem with the speed being a bit variable (I think something just needs tightening somewhere). This seems to happen particularly with records that have very narrow holes that just fit onto the spindle, and as the last two records both had small holes, ironically given I was reviewing the vinyl reissues, to listen to them properly I actually had to play them through Spotify!
Fast Man Raider Man essentially continues in the same beige-like vein, only this time it’s a double album so there is still more to enjoy if you are a fan of the genre, which really I have to say sadly I am not. It has been said elsewhere that if Frank Black was not already famous for other things, both of these albums would most likely go very much unnoticed.
It’s perhaps not the best sign that a well-rendered version of the popular song Dirty Old Town is a highlight of the album. Really very few lyrics of note throughout the 27 songs. On Fast Man, no matter how many times I listen, I’m still convinced that on at least one occasion Francis does in fact sing not “I’m a fast man” but “I’m a fat man”, which would be a rare moment of humour on the album.
Over the years, I’ve seen many very competent musicians play sets of this kind of music, and I’ve usually enjoyed them, and, especially if they’ve made the effort to come all the way from America to play, I might pick up the CD for perhaps a fiver, play it a couple of times, and then the CD will get lost amongst a stack of other CDs which hardly ever get listened to.
If you already own any of these albums on CD, particularly the last two, even if you have become a vinyl fan again in recent years, I wonder if you would feel the urge to buy these new vinyl editions? Really perhaps only for the most avid collectors.
I am loathed to criticise Frank Black who remains almost Godlike in my eyes, but I’m just not at all convinced by these releases. Irrespective of all of this, there’s one thing that cannot be denied and that is the vast back catalogue of songs this icon of indie rock now has. As he says on Kiss My Ring – “I am the greatest”, and especially considering there are already so many vastly inferior acts on the list, surely it’s about time either Frank Black or the Pixies were inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame?
14 Minute version of Planet of Sound – 14/10
Franck Black Francis – 7.5/10
Honeycomb – 7/10
Fast Man Raider Man – 6/10
(ratings by Treacle the Cat)