The Sad Punk

Photo by James Bunoan FRANK BLACK

Pity the fallen alt.-rock gods of yesteryear! You know, the ones who peaked pre-Nevermind (howdy, Paul Westerberg! What's up, Perry Farrell? Love ya, Bob Mould!) and are now reduced to churning out one rightly ignored hunk of aural swill after another, the sad victims of not merely age but also bad timing and their own sense of self-importance. Really, have you heard—or at least tried to hear—Mould's latest slice of unlistenable electro-caca? If he's out to destroy people's ideas that he was ever once great—and Hsker D and Sugar were—then he's doing a bang-up job.

Then there's Charles Thompson/Black Francis/Frank Black, once of the long-since-imploded Pixies, whose solo stuff has held up far better than the work of his contemporaries (though, of course, nothing he has churned out as a solo act has approached the Pixies' genius). And by "contemporaries," we also refer to Black's ex-bandmate Kim Deal, who looked like she was gonna be huge with her post-Pixies band, the Breeders. But then she went away for eight years, and her Breeders follow-up disc stiffed immensely, and, well, that's pretty much it for her.

Sweet justice, then, for Black, who wrote almost all the Pixies tunes anyway. Shouldn't he have been the one to go platinum? Hell, yes: the whole alt.-rock mania a decade ago would never have happened if Cobain hadn't gone and ripped him off so blatantly for "Teen Spirit." Black oughta be pissed, really. But, no, he apparently prefers to quietly release a new album every year or two, losing himself in future promises instead of past thefts and unashamedly doing whatever it takes to work new "product" out to whatever remains of the Cult of Frank.

So there he was at Fingerprints, partaking in that ultimate sister-kisser for any name musician: the In-Store Appearance, where so often the only people who truly appreciate you being there are the geeks working behind the counter. But the turnout was fairly hefty, if less than respectful from our vantage point in back. We witnessed some girl at a listening station rudely testing out a copy of a Train CD just as Black began his set—blaring it at full volume through her headphones, too, so anyone in close proximity could hear what bad taste she had (this also begs the question, "If a cool indie record shop like Fingerprints stocks such barfola as Train CDs, is it still cool or indie anymore?"). Fortunately, one of the workers made her stop before she could be more fully annoying, though that didn't stop some clueless cretins from taking cell phone calls or playing imaginary drums with their ballpoint pens.

This was quiet, acoustic, non-growly Frank Black: just the ever-cherubic, eternally bald one paired with accompanist Dave Philips of Black's latest band, the Catholics, who helped out on guitar and pedal steel. And the hour they played was mostly sweet: a decent-sized mixture of old Pixies tunes such as "Mr. Grieves," "Crackity Jones" (a nice surprise, though it quickly grew grating when Black started into a series of piercing woo-woo shrieks) and an excellent, country-fried, pedal-steel-soaked "Wave of Mutilation" with the inevitable Songs Off the New Record.

Or in this case, two new records, Devil's Workshop and Black Letter Days, both of which came out a week earlier—shades of Guns 'N Roses! (Black Letter Days, it's worth noting for you consumers, is twice as long as Devil's Workshop.) Both are filled with Black's trademarked verb cacophony, though he seems to have cut back on the tired oceanic and outer-space imagery he was once so fond of, subbing those with obtuse California place-name references and ravings about homeless people named Bartholomew.

The set seemed to be half-music, half-monologue—this being Blabbermouth Black, he'd often drone on between tunes about how his cat was eaten by a dog and how he has just gotten into SpongeBob SquarePants and how the Vandals' Josh Freese was in the crowd watching (with a baby in tow—how punk!). But when he'd do something as sublime as cover Tom Waits' "The Black Rider" to finish things off, you forgave him. It was just a reminder to keep buying his albums and keep paying attention to the guy because even though he may not be as great as he used to be, at least he can still be consistent. Mostly, anyway.


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