The second album credited to Frank Black and the Catholics, Pistolero from 1999, has never really been a favorite of mine. That said, it has some excellent songs. I tend to think of it as somewhat noisier and more chaotic than Frank’s earlier post-Pixies work, but there are several slow songs as well. There’s also kind of a depressing, world-weary vibe to much of it.
Bad Harmony – Frank has mentioned that the title phrase was mainstream enough that he wouldn’t have used it ten years previously. I think that applies to a lot of the songs on the album. While there are still some esoteric lyrics, a lot of it is more straightforward than on earlier records. It’s a pretty good song, but not one that I feel merits that much discussion.
I Switched You – This is the second-longest song on the album, yet it doesn’t have that much in the way of lyrics. It’s mostly notable for its relentless rhythm.
Western Star – We’re getting back into the esoteric lyrics here. It basically seems to be about a desire to be an actor in western movies, but that doesn’t explain what “freon bingo” is. The album’s title, which is Spanish for “gunman,” is mentioned here. It’s a very enjoyable number. My favorite part is the bridge, with some really bizarre rhymes: “Now he’s headed skyward/Standing up on piles of plywood/And all he talks about is how he/Looks like Heroes-period Bowie.” Apparently “skyward” and “plywood” kind of rhyme in some accents, but David Bowie’s last name doesn’t rhyme with “how he” no matter how you slice it. Perhaps it’s an intentional in-character mistake, with the egotistical guy mentioned comparing himself to Bowie without even knowing how to pronounce the guy’s name.
Tiny Heart – A pretty catchy song with depressing lyrics. The narrator describes his cynicism, thinking all love is doomed.
You’re Such a Wire – This slower, softer song criticizes someone for having an overly abrasive personality, but then admits that this description fits the narrator as well. I like the song, but again, I don’t have much to say about it. I think the more direct lyrics give me less fodder for discussion.
I Love Your Brain – We return to the loud guitar rock with this one, and I have to say I quite like the idea of a love song praising someone’s intellect. The line “I wanna sleep with your brain” is kind of funny, but I get it. Intelligence is sexy, after all. It’s fun, and I appreciate the reference to the doo-wop song “Duke of Earl,” which Frank has covered before.
Smoke Up – I think there’s a general sense of despair and ennui to this, particularly in the “It’s so damn late/It’s so damn dark” part.
Billy Radcliffe – Finally, a return to science fiction lyrics, this time about the sad life and tragic death of the first boy born in space. It sounds like it might refer to a specific sci-fi story, but if so I don’t know which one, and the Discopedia doesn’t provide any relevant information. The impression I get is that Billy died when he left the confines of his spaceship, or wherever it was he lived.
So Hard to Make Things Out – This one starts out with a similar sound to “Smoke Up,” but changes a few times throughout. It gets frantic in the middle, then somewhat more hopeful at the end. It’s another world-weary number, and while I’m not quite sure exactly what it’s about, it’s a good song. The part about mighty brick tiers on the ninety-sixth floor is likely a reference to “96 Tears,” by Question Mark & the Mysterians.
85 Weeks – This song is about Captain Beefheart, whose real name was Don Van Vliet, hence the line “he is a don and as well a captain.”
He’s one of those musicians who seem to be really popular among other artists, but less so with the general public. I’ve heard a song or two of his that I liked, but am not that familiar with him overall. He was known for creating publicity by making up bizarre stories about himself, in this case that he once went for a year and a half with no sleep, eating nothing but fruit. While I wouldn’t be surprised if the details differed from one telling to another, his Telegraph obituary adds that he then took a twenty-four hour nap and recorded his entire 1968 album Strictly Personal. The Eric telling this story is Eric Drew Feldman, who has played for both Beefheart and Frank.
Since the word “somnambulist” means “sleepwalker,” I’m not sure why someone who doesn’t sleep would be an “unsomnambulist.” Maybe it’s because he was walking around with no sleep?
I Think I’m Starting to Lose It – Why do songs about losing sanity tend to be so much fun? There’s a reference here to Aristotle’s forms of persuasion, with pathos being an appeal to emotion and logos to the logical part of the brain. His third kind of rhetoric, ethos, isn’t mentioned.
I Want Rock & Roll – This is probably the noisiest, punkiest song on the album, yet it’s an ode to varieties of traditional rock music. Frank mentions some of his favorite artists, including country rocker Freddy Fender, reggae rocker Desmond Dekker, and Chubby Checker, also working in references to the Rolling Stones and Elvis. The opening lines show a wistfulness for the music of 1955, ten years before Frank was born (or, as he puts it, “burned alive”). I believe the term “enthymeme” was also coined by Aristotle, and it refers to a rhetorical syllogism. I wonder if Frank was reading about classical philosophy when writing these songs.
Skeleton Man – While I wouldn’t consider this a country song, it has a little bit of a twang to it. And it’s about skeletons, so how can you wrong, especially with Halloween coming up? The lyrics are specifically about an archaeological dig, and continue the theme of wistfulness that shows up a lot on this record. “So Hard to Make Things Out” has Frank referring to a “younger land” where “things must have been grand,” and “I Want Rock & Roll” longs for old music, while here Frank is rediscovering the past through the exhumed skeleton.
So. Bay – I’m pretty sure this is about the South Bay area of Los Angeles; I’m not sure why the title is shortened like that. Like the narrator of “Jesus Was Right,” the character in this song finds a blissful escape from his rather ugly surroundings while riding his skateboard around the docks.