I’ve already done song-by-song reviews of the back catalogs of They Might Be Giants, XTC, and “Weird Al” Yankovic. They’ve been pretty enjoyable, if it’s sometimes a little difficult to say something about every song. I probably couldn’t do that at all for certain bands, but when an artist works in a lot of references, it gets easier. Then I have more to write about than just whether or not I like a particular song. So I think it might be appropriate to do this for Frank Black, who’s big on packing in references and writing about somewhat atypical subjects. The Frank Black Discopedia was quite helpful in identifying some of these references.The man’s real name is Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, but he called himself Black Francis for the Pixies. When he did solo work, he reversed it to Frank Black, which sounds more like a regular name. On more recent projects, he’s gone back to Black Francis. Anyway, while I’m sure I’ll get to the Pixies albums (including Indie Cindy, which I probably haven’t given a fair shake yet), I’m going to start out with his first solo album, which is self-titled. I was a fan of Frank’s before getting into the Pixies (albeit only shortly before), which I think worked better for me because the music is less noisy and there are some rather geeky topics involved, especially on his earlier solo work. I feel I should point out that his music doesn’t always resonate with me on the first listen, but repeated exposure often makes me realize how great it is. I guess it’s not really the sort of thing you can listen to casually. Anyway, here’s Frank Black:
Los Angeles – The first song, which was also the first single, is a good way to start things off. It shifts between somewhat spacey acoustic guitar and louder electric rock. The lyrics are about places called Los Angeles other than the famous one in California, including in Mexico and Chile. He pronounces the name with a hard G throughout, which was apparently something occasionally done in the past but not so much anymore, hence the line about people saying it that way “in all the black-and-white movies.” Mind you, I never took Spanish, but I’m pretty sure they don’t pronounce it with either the English hard or soft G. There’s also a mention of a future Los Angeles, combined with an offhand reference to the Zanger and Evans song “In the Year 2525.” I’m not sure who the “good man” with a particle accelerator is, but it fits in with a general theme of sympathy for wandering eccentrics in Frank’s work. The video for the song is directed by John Flansburgh of TMBG, and shows Black riding a hovercraft and dressing in weird outfits.
I Heard Ramona Sing – Basically a love song to the Ramones, for whom Frank seems to have an almost cosmic reverence. It doesn’t sound like the Ramones, though, instead having a surf-rock vibe.
Hang on to Your Ego – A cover of a Beach Boys song that has an interesting history in and of itself. It was written by Brian Wilson, but Mike Love didn’t like it because he thought it contained references to dropping acid. Apparently at the time LSD was said to take away the ego, or something like that. So it was slightly rewritten for Pet Sounds as “I Know There’s an Answer.”
The original sounds sort of like a collision between surf and jug band music, while Frank’s is more straight-ahead rock. Flansburgh directed a video for this one as well, which features Frank’s younger brother Parker, various trivia, and a lot of kaleidoscope effects.
Fu Manchu – Frank has said this was inspired by a Desmond Dekker song of the same title.
The lyrics refer to the style of mustache made famous by the character. Frank wears one himself in the liner notes and towards the end of the “Los Angeles” video, although his isn’t quite as long as the traditional sort.
John Linnell of TMBG and Kurt Hoffman (who was playing with TMBG at the time) play the saxophones. This isn’t one of the stand-out tracks on the album, but there’s nothing WRONG with it. It’s just kind of slight.
Places Named After Numbers – I wasn’t sure what to expect from this title, but it’s actually about black holes. This is one of the slower songs on the record.
Czar – This is actually about John Denver, who apparently tried to make a deal with the Soviets to be sent into space, but it never happened for some reason. Same basic story as with Lance Bass, I guess. It also mentions how he hoarded gasoline during the energy crisis in the 1970s.
Old Black Dawning – While not the best song on the album, it might be the most fun to listen to, with its upbeat sound. It refers to Biosphere 2 in Arizona, which was originally built to be a self-sustaining ecosystem, but the two experiments in this vein were unsuccessful. Frank compares it to the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
Ten Percenter – While most of this album is more melodic than what the Pixies are known for, this one gets a bit discordant and screamy at times. It’s been stated that the “guy who’s hailing from Ann Arbor” is Iggy Pop, who’s originally from a trailer park near there. I’ve seen speculation that the title refers to the persistent myth that people only use ten percent of their brains, which fits with the lines “My mind is like an ocean/I’m hanging in the harbor.”
Brackish Boy – A short, rather silly, seemingly flippant song about a tragic event that’s apparently a true story. A friend of his in college who came from Norway had an adopted brother from Mexico who tried to go to his birthplace to find his roots, but was killed by a truck before he could get there. The word “brackish” refers to water that’s too salty for fresh water but not salty enough to be considered salt water, reflecting the character’s feelings as someone who feels out of place.
Two Spaces – The first verse is about outer space, and the second about the ocean. Frank has said that each verse has a different narrator, the first being dissatisfied with being earthbound and the second enjoying undersea life.
Tossed (Instrumental Version) – A fun, sax-heavy instrumental. Since it’s labeled “Instrumental Version,” you probably wouldn’t be surprised that Frank has been known to perform it with lyrics. They’re something like “I must have been tossed down here/Shaved, stripped naked and tossed down here.” The words make rather more disturbing, don’t they?
Parry the Wind High, Low – This one is about UFOs and alien abduction, favorite topics of Frank’s at the time. He’s told the story of having seen a UFO when he was three months old. I can’t really think of too much else to say about it, other than that it has two distinct parts, takes a little too long to end, and has references to Desmond Dekker and the Arecibo Observatory.
Adda Lee – Frank has said this song was about someone he knew who died, although he doesn’t use her real name. It’s easily the saddest song on the album, at least lyrically.
Every Time I Go Around Here – The artist has described this as a “love song moving through space time,” although that doesn’t really say that much of what it’s about. It sounds like a car crash is involved, and some of it is about time standing still. I guess it’s the combination of the possible crash and that it comes after “Adda Lee” that I hear this one as a sad song as well, but I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be.
Don’t Ya Rile ‘Em – I love the drumbeats that open this one, and there’s some excellent guitar work on it. It’s kind of wistful, but also triumphant. The lyrics are about electric light, and how difficult it is to experience true darkness and see the night sky clearly. That much has been confirmed. I tend to see the narrator as another wandering eccentric, doing his best to decry light pollution but being shouted down, finally finding peace outside civilization in the second verse.