Ghosts of the past: Frank Black returns to Starr Hill

Lately I’ve been listening to some of the proto-alt rock group the Pixies’ earliest studio recordings, thanks to spinART Records’ recent release of Pixies– aka The Purple Tape.
This CD features nine never-before-released (at least officially) recordings from the group’s 17-track demo– the same demo that led to their quick signing to England’s 4AD records and the release of the demo’s other eight tracks on the group’s debut EP, Come On Pilgrim.
During their short lifespan, the Pixies produced four critically acclaimed full-lengths, influenced innumerable bands, and gained the lifelong respect of music lovers everywhere (including me).
The Purple Tape provides an amazing window into a soon-to-be-legendary band, showing that even in their earliest form, their signature sounds were already in place. Singer/songwriter Frank Black’s (then Black Francis’) cooing to screeching vocals and fiery guitar lines, and bassist Kim Deal’s vocal exchanges with Black– two pivotal elements in the group’s success– sound as fresh and polished as they do on the band’s later recordings.
My current addiction to The Purple Tape happens to coincide with Frank Black and The Catholics show at Starr Hill on November 19, which has led to some personal car-ride comparisons between Black-the-old and Francis-the-young.
The first two Frank Black solo albums, a self-titled 1993 release that was actually started before the Pixies officially disbanded, and 1994’s Teenager of the Year, were hailed by critics and fans alike. They were lush, glorious, quirky pop affairs, and though they were not considered as influential as his earlier Pixies work, they were fabulous nonetheless.
Later solo releases have not been embraced with the same fervor– in place of the lushness of his first two studio releases, or the catastrophic sounds of the Pixies in their prime, Black has settled for a vaguely “Rolling Stones of the 70’s” working band sound. Alt-country was never a term used to describe the Pixies, but as Black’s solo career has progressed, his down-home inclinations have become more pronounced.
Last year’s Frank Black and The Catholics’ show at Starr Hill was quite an event. Sure, Black has significantly mellowed in his later years, but he can rock with the best of them when he puts his mind to it– it’s only because he was in the Pixies that anyone would say he’s lost his edge. His post-Pixies output was performed with a steady hand by a learned band, and the audience seemed to enjoy it, even if they didn’t know most of the words.
This year, Frank Black released two full lengths, Devil’s Workshop and Black Letter Days, which are probably better than 99 percent of the rock records released this year. Unfortunately, one album in that remaining one percent, in between the latest from Sleater Kinney and the new Wilco, would probably be the first recording by the Pixies, The Purple Tape.
Irony, ain’t it grand?

Frank Black and The Catholics perform at Starr Hill November 19. $15/$12 advance, 9pm.

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