Thursday, July 27, 2006

Frank Black's "Fastman Raiderman" and the perils of the double-album

Frank Black certainly is giving us our money's worth with this one. At 27 songs across two discs, this album could be mistaken for a best of compilation very quickly.

Then it clicks that they are all original rechordings.

Double albums are tough things to get right though. Most bands can't even get a single album down straight. Here are a few common mess-ups:

1. Spill Over + Filler

Basically what happens is a band gets industrious... too industrious. They pass that 70 to 80 min. threshold and find they still have a few good songs on the cutting board. Instead of practicing discipline by holding on to those extra tracks for another album or singles or anything that seems practical... they lob them over two CD 2. But now they have a CD with only five or so tracks! Thus the filler... taking the form of quickly written songs (often under creatively exhausted circumstances... like right after writing the last 20 or so songs) and at times more blatant forms such as overstretching songs with solos and twelve apparent endings. Jam filler.

2. Phishy Albums

Miles Davis and John Coltrane can get away with double albums where CD 1 consists of only one or two tracks... stoner jam bands usually can't. Some songs are meant to be six eight or even eighteen minutes long. Others tend to be that way because the musicians are not just real gone, but so out of it they have no sense of discipline whatsoever.

There is nothing wrong with jam music. The problem is when you record something that is significant to you because it felt good while you were stoned... for the entirety of your being stoned... that you then expect to pass off to me who is not stoned as if I'm somehow going to get the "genius" of it... you funny. You funny in the head.

In fairness to good stoner jam bands... talent goes a long way. Jerry Garcia knew how to make more than a groovy acid ride out of his music, he knew how to make it something you could listen to and enjoy with all your brain cells intact.

3. Zero Discipline Unloading

This is dangerous territory because it can really work. At least two of my favorite albums fall into this category. The Beatles' White Album and The Clash's Sandinista! are both prime examples of albums that unleash a ton of music on the listener. Both are eclectic and seemingly all over the place. And need I even bring up The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs? Yet these are the lucky ones and not all got away unscathed. In all three cases the albums seem gratuitously over blown and dripping with filler. There exception comes greatly from the fact the bands were creatively at or near their peek and their attention no matter how decadent was still somewhat focused. Where these albums can go wrong is simply in potential for ambition tunnel vision. Note particularly that Sandinista! was originally a triple album on vinyl and a follow up to there double album masterpiece London Calling.

When a band gets big enough they can reach a place where they feel they can do whatever they want and if that place comes from the right kind of success, the studios might agree with them. This worked for The Clash... primarily because they were... well... The Clash! The problem with most bands is they're not The Clash... ok I'm joking with this but still. Most bands that get to that point where they think they can do whatever they want loose their grasp on what got them their. They don't put forth the creative effort they once did. They shovel out a big ugly mess with flute solos and synthesized drums and a song called "Angel" before it's all over with.

Obviously I'm not talking about any particular band with those examples... heh, heh...

There are probably others to be considered as well but all and all the double album can be treacherous waters. Great songs can be lost in the murk. The album is seldom listened to from beginning to end. One CD usually doesn't live up to the other. So on and so forth...

So... Frank Black released another double album.

Frank Black may never escape being known as the front man and primary writer for the Pixies, where he's known as Black Francis. People still flock to his fan sites hoping they'll make another album together. Most of Black's solo work has till recently met with little commercial success. But last year shortly after releasing Frank Black Francis and the kicking off the Pixies reunion tour... he did something that caught peoples attention.

A country album?

The man behind the most significant band in 80's experimental pre-grunge (second only to Sonic Youth who are really in a league of their own), known for his trademark blood thinning hell ripping scream... a country singer?

And the answer was simply... Honeycomb.

Honeycomb was not a perfect album, but where it got it right it really did get it right. And the more flawed tracks over time seem to smoothen out and grow on you. The blend of Frank Black's surreal lyrics coming from a more somber older man make it one of my favorite alternative country albums, right up their with Beck's Sea Change... which in many ways Honeycomb surpasses by being an album you can listen to in one sitting. It was an album written at turning point in Black's life. Much in the same way that Arcade Fire went from their arty (and for me uninteresting) demos to the mega opus Funeral thanks to several pivotal events in their personal lives (from parents and friends dying... to marriage), Black made this album coming out of divorce. To give one example of how personal the album is, it features a duet with his ex-wife on a song called Strange Goodbye. The real heavy weight of the album though is its closing, Sing For Joy, which documents events from his childhood, friends and family.

Frank may still have been figuring out the reins of country vocals and at times his experimentation may have slipped, but overall Honeycomb was a good album worth listening to. With time it could have been perfected but perhaps at the cost of sincerity, which is something I fear too many good artist overlook. The more you fine tune something, the further away you get from that profound moment that gave birth to it. In the end if the option of retakes and more tuning had even been addressed I still think he made the right choice. The album does leave one wondering what would come next though.

Fastman Raiderman, his new album, is the product of Frank Black getting the hang of the sound that he experimented with on Honeycomb. It is not always as experimental as Honeycomb but that's both a bad thing and a good thing. In place of those tangents is solid execution. There is no tiptoeing with this record. Frank Black knows exactly what he is trying to do and is doing it. His range from haggard graveled groan to high nasal whine is fully realized here. It's very difficult to master the art of a nasally whine that's not annoying, but he has and never does he hide behind the Black Francis scream that is always a surefire way to please Pixies fans.

This is one of the most solid and consistent double albums I've ever listened to. I had to look for bad songs and only one really stuck out. The song Fitzgerald comes off messy both in execution and lyrics, like he's not sure if he wants to sing it or talk it. That middle ground sometimes works in country, but not here. Still, that's one song I don't like out of 27! Sure a few get drowsy here and there, It's Just Not Your Moment was a little clunky, but over all I'd be totally lost trying to figure out only three or four radio singles from this album. At least half the songs seem like good picks. It's an album on the move from its narrative to its sound. A mix of highway sign lyricism and personal insight that feels complealty genuine... with a dash of the surreal to keep you from dosing off against the passenger window. The lyrics really are quite good for an effort this big. This is songwriting with barb-tip hooks. With four or five co-written and one traditional, it's basically all Black. Impressive, considering how relatively short a time it's been since his last album, which featured a few covers in a more modest 14 tracks.

As for its length becoming too cumbersome... it comes close to it. Though in a way it shines from this very thing. It's an album that I feel is going to age very well. As old favorites become overplayed, other solid pop songs or slower ballads will surface, and I've yet to have any difficulty on long car rides listening to the entire beast. It's a chewy album... not a jawbreaker.

For those of you sulking once more at the likelihood that there will never be another Pixies album... two songs on this should make you somewhat happy. Kiss My Ring is VERY Pixiesesque tune, and Elijah has some very... um... familiar chords in it if you listen carefully. Kiss My Ring is one of my favorites along with Johnny Barleycorn and Fast Man, and the list goes on. Don't Cry That Way is delightful and a rendition of Fare Thee Well may seem a little humble and ending but after his former album's Sing For Joy it seems anything would have felt that way by comparison. Plus, hardcore pixies fans will surely read way to far between the lines with the song's first stanza... thinking it yet another clue that the Pixies are no more.

Frankly, I'd love another Pixies album... but only if it could be as good as the old ones, and that's a lot to ask. I'm happy with the original five. Few bands can lay claim to such a tight and satisfying career as they had given us. Plus, if Frank Black can give us music this good, I really can't find reason to complain.

Now if only The Breeders could get back at it...


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