Black Francis - Svn Fngrs Review
Posted by Mitch Michaels on 04.07.2008
Former Pixies frontman brings us an album he recorded in one day, and it’s still better than most rockers could muster…
There’s been a strange epidemic over the past few weeks of bands wanting to get their music out fast. The Raconteurs announced an album and released it the next week. Gnarls Barkley put out their new CD weeks early, just because they were excited to get it out there. And then you have Frank Black (aka Black Francis), who was so excited to release his new mini-album that, when he wrote up his own press release, he was off on the date by nearly a month. When you couple this with the immediacy of artist websites and MySpace pages, where band’s like Weezer are constantly posting new demos and new album cuts, music has never been more accessible.
One can argue that this sort of practice of “giving it away” or “rushing the process” hurts the first week sales, but the people who argue that are record company fucks. The truth is, if you’re proud of something, you’re immediate response is to share it with someone else. Will Black Francis’ excitement over his new album spread?
Black Francis (aka Charles Thompson IV) was born in Boston in 1965, but he grew up in several places around the United States as his father and then stepfather. He began playing guitar at the age of 12 and his first exposure to the rock world was controversial Christian rocker Larry Norman. Thompson graduated high school in 1983 and went to University of Massachusetts Amherst to pursue a degree in anthropology. As his passion for music grew, he met fellow college student Joey Santiago. Young Thompson eventually dropped out of school and moved to Boston to form a band with Santiago.
Thompson and Santiago formed the Pixies in 1985, with bassist Kim Deal, whom they found through a classified ad, and drummer David Lovering, a friend of a friend. In 1987, the band borrowed $1,000 from Thompson’s dad to record a demo tape. The tape led to a contract with indie 4AD, who released the Pixies’ debut album, Come On Pilgrim, that fall. It was with this album that Thompson adopted the stage name Black Francis, which he says was inspired by his father’s planned name for a second son.
Surfer Rosa followed in 1988, and then Doolittle in 1989. The Pixies are often credited with pioneering the alternative rock sound of the late 80’s, which laid the groundwork for grunge and alt-rock in the 1990’s. While Surfer Rosa was thought well of underground, it was Doolittle that really thrust the band into the spotlight. Two tracks from the album, “Monkey Gone To Heaven” and “Here Comes Your Man”, were Modern Rock Top 10 hits.
Just as the band was breaking in the mainstream, though, internal tensions threatened to tear it apart. Heat between Francis and Deal forced the band to announce a hiatus after the release of Doolittle, though they would reconvene in a few months to record the next Pixies album. Bossanova was released in 1990 and became the band’s second Top 10 album in the UK. It also garnered the Pixies their first Top 40 UK single in “Velouria”. The band wasn’t seeing quite the same success in the States, but were still charting Modern Rock hits.
Trompe le Monde was released in 1991 and was the final Pixies album together. Before Trompe’s completion, Black Francis was already working on a solo album with Pixies collaborator Eric Drew Feldman. The Pixies officially ended in 1993, the same year Francis released a self-titled album under his new moniker, Frank Black. Sonically, Frank Black continued the indie rock of the Pixies. Lyrically, he delved more into the realms of science fiction and fantasy for his songs, a trend that had begun on later Pixies albums (and had driven Kim Deal crazy). Teenager Of The Year, a sprawling double album that still found Black honing the best of his sound, followed in 1994.
In 1995, Frank Black parted with 4AD Records, the same year the Pixies’ Doolittle was certified gold. It was just an example of how the band was ahead of their time. With a new backing band, Black produced his first album for American Records in 1996. The Cult Of Ray was a stripped down, harder rocking affair than anything Black had recorded before. Black liked the sound so much that he kept the new band, dubbing them The Catholics.
Frank Black And The Catholics was recorded quickly, live in the studio in 1997. However, American Records began seeing its own internal problems, delaying the album for over a year. By the time FB&TC hit stores, Black had moved on to indie spinART. Black & The Catholics continued to record that way for several years, jumping from label to label and releasing albums very quickly. Critics began to decry Black’s new output, claiming he was purposely moving away from the Pixies’ sound to record safe, straight rock music. Black continued undeterred. Frank Black & The Catholics released five more albums between 1999 and 2003, all of which met with decent to good reviews, but little commercial success.
Though Black’s output with the Catholics moved further away from the Pixies’ unique style, the band began to play more and more Pixies material in their live shows. This culminated in the 2004 reunion of the Pixies, which featured a notable tour and the release of a brand new single. For his own part, Black released the album Frank Black Francis, which featured early Pixies demos and modern recordings of Pixies songs by Black solo. This kicked off a new wave of notoriety for the Pixies, who saw Surfer Rosa go gold during that time period, and for Black himself, who released a bevy of archive solo material to eager fans.
Following the Pixies first reunion tour, Black recorded another solo album in Nashville with an all new backing band of notable session legends like Steve Cropper and Spooner Oldham. Honeycomb was a big success critically, and generated a sequel in Fast Man Raider Man.
Black continues to tour with the Pixies as well as work on solo recordings, though rumors of a Pixies reunion album are ever-present. In late 2007, Black released a hard rocking concept album called Bluefinger. It was credited to his alter ego, Black Francis. A few months later, he announced the release of a Black Francis mini-concept album, which was rushed to stores in spring of 2008.
On April 1, 2008, Coooking Vinyl released Svn Fngrs, a mini-album by Black Francis and the follow-up to 2007’s Bluefinger.
The Band: 7.5
Black Francis: guitar, harmonica, vocals
The story is that Cooking Vinyl wanted a B-side from Black Francis for promoting his last album, Bluefinger. What they got when he emerged from the studio was this seven-track mini-album. Hardly surprising, considering Frank Black Francis has been releasing studio albums every year (or more) for the last two decades. I’ll allow the “mini-album” title, because Svn Fngrs is just too long for an EP. Still, the set is remarkably short and lean. It’s also recorded very live, with just a bassist and drummer to back it up. You could imagine that this is the sound Francis was jonesing for back when he created the tight Catholics on American Records.
For his part, Black sounds great here, bringing to mind some of the best Americana around, with flashes of Tom Petty and Van Morrison amidst a garage rock aesthetic. The guitar is tough, the rhythm section is loose and Black stands in the middle, confident in his rock star status, but somehow still an outsider after all these years.
Recorded in just a day, Svn Fngrs is utterly devoid of polish, but if you think the levels need tweaking or that a few more guitars need multi-tracked in, you’re just missing the point. This is as close as you’ll get to hanging out with a musical genius in his studio.
The Songs: 7.0
1. The Seus
2. Garbage Heap
3. Half Man
4. I Sent Away
5. Seven Fingers
6. The Tale Of Lonesome Fetter
7. When They Come to Murder Me
At just 20 minutes and change, Svn Fngrs is forced to work its magic very quickly. It grabs your attention right away with the opening track, “The Seus”, a cut that literally sounds like Black plugging in and searching for an idea…for about 30 seconds anyway, when everything falls into place for a funky groove.
Other cuts here are more fully formed. “When They Come To Murder Me” is an amazing highlight, with a wonderful jangly guitar and a driving rhythm that is better than nearly anything the garage rock revival produced. “I Sent Away” hangs on by the seat of its pants for two minutes, jerking like a wooden rollercoaster. Great punk moment here, and the harmonica comes in completely unexpectedly.
“Murder Me” and the title track are loosely based on Irish mythology, but Svn Fngrs is hardly that well constructed to be a concept album. It’s simply seven quickly recorded songs that all work on some level, making them deserving moments in the canon of one of our best songwriters.
The 411: Everything about Svn Fngrs was rushed: it’s recording, it’s promotion. But that creates a nice atmosphere for this mini-album. Black Francis rocks with authority on this stripped down, unpolished set of garage rock and tough Americana. Nothing is pre-planned and some songs, like “The Seus”, sound like they’re developing as they go along. It’s a joy for fans to listen to and cool for rock lovers too. Highlights like “When They Come To Murder Me” make this lean set worth picking up, and the low price tag helps, too.