The first Frank Black albums I bought when they were new were Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop, which actually came out on the same day in 2002. It was also the day the Neko Case album Blacklisted was released, and I bought all three at a Borders. Remember Borders? It usually wasn’t the cheapest place to buy music, but none of the other stores in the area appeared to have these albums. Of the two, Black Letter Days has considerably more songs, and it tends to strike me as being the darker one overall. Maybe that’s partially due to the title, though. I’ll keep that in mind as I delve into these records, with Black Letter Days being the focus of this post.
The Black Rider – A cover of a song by Tom Waits, another musician who seems to be much more popular than other artists than with the general public. I have to admit his voice is rather grating for me, but this song is interesting because of how bizarre it is, sort of a twisted circus tune.
The Catholics do it as more of a straight rock number.
California Bound – A really catchy song with cool guitar work, sung from the point of view of Spanish Christian missionaries who settled in California. There seems to be a certain amount of sarcasm to the lyrics, but it’s not totally unsympathetic. Towards the end, it has one of those minor lyric changes that leads to a totally different tone, in this case from “don’t let your mind chase you like a hound” to “WE’RE coming to chase you like a hound.”
Chip Away Boy – I’m pretty clueless when it comes to identifying types of rhythm, but I think this one qualifies as a samba. While not entirely clear, the title seems to be somewhat of a pun, combining the idea of someone being metaphorically chipped away with the Chippewa tribe. It’s a pretty sad, nostalgic sort of song.
Cold Heart of Stone – A bitter post-breakup kind of song, not at all atypical for Frank.
Black Letter Day – This is similar in theme to the last one, particularly the lyric “Every day I curse the one who left me here alone.” It’s a harder rock number, however, and the title (and hence the title of the album) comes from the reference to special days as red letter days, based on a tradition on calendars to mark the dates in red ink. Hence, a black letter day would be just a normal, boring day. I’ve seen it suggested that the “Excuse me, please, do you have the time?” could see a reference to Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”.
Valentine and Garuda – Garuda is a Hindu bird god, who looks pretty cool and has a name that’s just fun to say, so I’m glad someone used it in a song.
Frank has said it was inspired by hiking near a Hindu temple.
How You Went So Far – I’m definitely noticing a theme, in that at least four songs so far have been partially about being dumped. From what I understand, this wasn’t too long before Frank’s divorce, so his relationship difficulties were probably channeled into a lot of these.
End of Miles – Frank has made it clear that he’s traveled a lot in his lifetime, having been born in Massachusetts but largely raised in California. This is essentially a song about the awe of reaching the Pacific Ocean and knowing you can’t go any farther by conventional means. The narrator has been through a lot, but is largely optimistic. I remember hearing that the online CD database once had this one identified as “God of Miles” for some reason.
1826 – This might actually be my least favorite song on the album, mostly just because it’s musically repetitive and drags at the end. The title is very intriguing, though, as it’s not clear what event in 1826 it’s referring to. If Frank has commented on this, it’s not mentioned on the Frank Black Discopedia. The lyrics don’t say much other than that it’s about a guy running away from his enemies. The Fredonian Rebellion was that year, and seems like the kind of thing Frank would write about. Haden Edwards, who had a land grant in Texas, founded a colony near Nacogdoches and declared independence from Mexico. When the Mexican army attacked, he and the other settlers fled to the United States, so that fits the theme.
The Farewell Bend – It’s somewhat difficult for another song about being dumped to really stand out at this point, but the title is an interesting metaphor, and I like the rhythm. Pacoima is a neighborhood in Los Angeles (the one in South California).
Southbound Bevy – I like when Frank sings falsetto, and he definitely manages to sell this song of pessimism and crushed spirits. I feel kind of bad, because when I saw him live, this one didn’t get much applause. Hey, I like it!
I Will Run After You – This song adds a new twist on the formula of being abandoned, saying that he’ll pursue the person who leave him. Kind of creepy, really. It has a repetitive ending, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me as much here as on “1826.”
True Blue – This is one of those songs where the title isn’t what you might expect from the lyrics, since it uses “in a little while” twelve times and “true blue” only once. I always liked this short piece, but I appreciated it even more when I found out that each of the first five lines rhymes with a syllable of “in a little while,” then it’s done again in reverse. It’s interesting that there are comparisons to two different reptiles. A narghile is another word for a hookah, so it fits with the next line, “one more road for the hit.” Frank would later use this reversed phrase as the title of a rarities collection.
Jane, the Queen of Love – I’ve seen two different suggestions about the title of this one. One is that “Jane” is an anagram of Frank’s then-wife’s name, Jean. Another, based partially on the lyric “she makes bumblebee love,” relates it to Jainism, a topic Frank covers explicitly on a later song. I don’t think either has been confirmed, but considering the general tone of the album, the former almost certainly has some truth to it.
Jet Black River – The second shortest song on the album, clocking in at only two more seconds than “True Blue” according to iTunes. While I don’t have as much to say about it as that one, I still like it.
21 Reasons – An epic song with its structure probably based at least partially on “American Pie,” starting slow and building up. While that song is only about the death of three people (significant though they were), however, this is about the displacement and forced conversion of the native tribes of California. The title refers to the twenty-one missions that the Spanish built there. The insurrection mentioned might be the one in 1824, after Mexico had taken control of California, in which some of the missions were set on fire by rebels.
Whispering Weeds – This is an upbeat number, at least musically speaking. It basically seems to be about exploring a weedy hill near a Hindu temple, possibly the one that inspired “Valentine and Garuda.” The lyrics refer to “Leo Carillo,” possibly the national park named after an actor, but that spells “Carrillo” with two R’s. Then again, Google mentions Leo Carillo Beach, with only one R, so I don’t know for sure.
The Black Rider – When the band was practicing this song, they ended up playing two versions that were quite different but both good, so Frank decided to bookend the album with both of them. This version is a little more similar in tone to the Waits original, although it’s still considerably faster. There’s a third totally different take on this song on the Live at Melkweg album.
In conclusion, yes, it’s a pretty dark and sad album, although it still has some really fun songs. Hopefully we can take a look at its companion next week.