Paint It Black

This monkey's gone to heaven: Frank Black and the Catholics

This monkey's gone to heaven: Frank Black and the Catholics

Remember that deliciously wicked sensation you felt when you swore to keep your first carnal experience sacred and secret? Remember the libidinous feeling you got a few minutes later when you recounted every seedy detail to all of your friends and acquaintances? Well, mention the Pixies to anyone who claims to be a fan of "alternative rock" and the response is likely to be a similar recitation of hyperstimulated, over-detailed memories. When the Pixies exploded on the Boston scene in the late Eighties, rock music surrendered to them with a sweet shudder. This pleasurable ripple was perhaps most savored by the man who instigated it: Black Francis.

Francis helped to develop the catchy, start/stop dynamics--a delicately phrased verse that catapulted into his frantic, screamed chorus--that became the Pixies' signature song structure. After the band broke up in 1992, owing mostly to fights between Francis and Kim Deal over songwriting responsibilities, Francis established his post-Pixies independence by releasing three independent albums under the new moniker Frank Black, and another three albums with his band the Catholics.

Yet somewhere along the way, Black seems to have been bitten by the ghost of classic rock. This year, Frank Black and the Catholics' Dog in the Sand (What Are Records), provides a stylistic departure from his Pixies-influenced musical history. Just when fans had become accustomed to Black's non sequiturs and space-age, surf-rock arrangements, Dog in the Sand returns to a more traditional structure. "Hermaphroditos" could be the Stones' blues-drenched "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" revamped with a nod to the Stooges. "Llano del Rio" combines mod-rockin' skiffle rhythms with old-school riffs, replete with slide guitar and a "Jambalaya"-style refrain. One might even say that Dog in the Sand is Frank Black and the Catholics' VH1 album.

"My music is not quite as angular and quirky as it used to be," Black admits. "I guess that comes out of wanting to achieve a more classic-rock sound." According to Black, this stylistic change occurred when he was dropped from his former label, American Recordings. The ensuing financial crunch forced him to record fewer tracks on the new album and opt for a more stripped-down sound.

Along with the stark, new tone came a major shift in his songwriting. Over the years, the alien epics on Black's debut album (in songs like "Parry the Wind High, Low") have given way to introspective ballads (on Pistolero's "Bad Harmony") and most recently to topographical fables (on Dog in the Sand's "I've Seen Your Picture") fit for Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

"I think I'm getting more comfortable with a more universal or traditional kind of lyric--it's fun to try and be able to do that," he says. Unsure of how die-hard fans have responded to Black's musical makeover, he muses, "I think it's too early to say that I've been able to gain a new crowd for my new [pauses for emphasis] everyman personality."

Black's latest incarnation as a modest musician seems to be a reaction to his reputation--which he believes to be undeserved--as an egomaniac. He certainly has been prickly in public and has long been reluctant to discuss his former band. Nonetheless, he has maintained a solid relationship with former Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago, who assisted in recording the demos for Dog in the Sand. And, for the first time since the Pixies' breakup, Black has started performing some of the celebrated Pixies songs.

It seems that as Black ventures away from his Pixies roots, and as he explores the influences of such classic rockers as Roxy Music, the Rolling Stones, and Neil Young, he increasingly encounters his own musical past. Perhaps the alternative to the alternative is yet another alternative.