Frank Black Francis
When it comes to Charles Thompson IV -- a.k.a., Black Francis and Frank Black -- "what's in a name?" has always been a loaded question. But with the release of Frank Black Francis, the Big Pixie -- who for years refused to play any songs at all by his old band -- seems to have finally reconciled his past and present in a two-CD set celebrating both identities. But, like the two sides of Black's career, Francis' is so vital and revelatory poor Frank's just seems to subside in the brilliant glow.
Disc I captures Thompson in 1987 recording his voice and acoustic guitar straight into the cassette walkman of Come On Pilgrim-producer Gary Smith, with just a hint of reverb tossed in (the sound quality is demo-excellent, however). Black Francis emerges nearly whole in these 15 cuts, Thompson unleashing his fiery, vitriolic alter-ego on early (occasionally bilingual) Pixies classics like "Isla De Encanta," "Caribou," and "Vamos." Some demos sound remarkably fully formed, while others include running commentary ("I'm supposed to be screaming here!") fleshing out their future sound. What emerges is the realization of just how genre-bending Thompson's songwriting was, and also what an underrated guitarist he's always been. And for those who've spun ... Pilgrim into the ground, these versions reanimate their genius, in effect acting as a musical Way Back Machine for the listener.
Disc II sets out to do its own reanimating through the remix looking glass of Two Pale Boys' Andy Diagram and Keith Moline. Covering the length of the Pixies' catalog ("Caribou" to "Planet of Sound"), the 13 remixes mostly succeed, with some cuts ("Levitate Me," "Velouria," "Is She Weird?") standing out above the rest, and a couple (particularly "Monkey Gone to Heaven" and "Where Is My Mind") sending you scurrying back to Disc I or the rest of the Pixies' catalog. On its own, Disc II might be praised for adventurousness often thought to be lacking in Frank Black's solo work. But pared next to the naked intensity of these early demos -- well, there isn't much that wouldn't suffer in comparison.
Rating: Black Francis Demos:
Track to Burn: "I've Been Tired"
Rating: Frank Black Francis:
Track to Burn: "Levitate Me"
The Black Keys
The blues rock revival...what a load of crap. Any half-decent garage band with blues riffs gets lumped into the nuevo Nuggets pool. But Ohio's Black Keys are no mere copycat revivalists. They're the White Stripes if Meg White could play the drums and Jack White wasn't so self-aware. They're the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion minus the gold lame and self-referential choruses. Guitarist/singer/songwriter Dan Auerbach writes ballsy-sexy love songs full of let's-just-do-it swagger. He's evenly matched with drummer/producer Patrick Carney's tough, classic production that never asks you to acknowledge just how cool and retro it is. Anyone who can turn The Kinks' "Act Nice and Gentle" into a sleepy, rambling late-night plea has a pretty good grasp of what rock & roll is all about. But it's the originals that really stand out. "Girl Is On My Mind" is a hopeless yet cocky lust song. And no one-trick ponies, the largely acoustic "The Lengths" is a beautiful and haunting last-call love song. What the Black Keys have that other blues rockers lack is a heavy dose of soul, real emotion rather than just going through the motions. The result is one of the best rock records of the year.
Track to Burn: "The Lengths"
--Tara E. Flanagan
Rob Sonic has been a hip (hop) name to drop in indie circles for a while now, thanks to a handful of star-turn solo tracks and a few sides done with his former group, the Radiohead-approved Sonic Sum. The real question with the portly producer was this: What's the sum of the sonics? Can he pull it off over an entire album?
Fear not, all you young trucker cap-wearing Phillip K. Dick fans. Sonic splits with the familiar Def Jux sound on Telicatessen -- a Blade Runner, futuristic aural landscape one witty wag recently described as "Vangelis-meets-Bomb Squad" -- in favor of a Moog-heavy, synthesizer-laced sound that's equal parts marijuana fog and cocaine edginess. Sonic's lyrics, often a Malkmus-meets-Stipe stream-of-cough-syrup blend of non-sequiturs ("compost fast food centipede," "wormhole on hiatus, bait a hook"), contain more than enough authentic NYC street soul to make you buy into the rapper's rather audacious Telicatessen conceit: in essence, a pick-your-poison verbal brasserie comprised of equal parts unconscious collective and collective unconscious. Whether taken as a silhouette of the man or his surroundings (both work fine), the result -- the sum, if you will -- is the same: Telicatessen is nothing less than a Sonic boom.
Track to Burn: "Strange Hammer"
--Timothy C. Davis