Frank Black and the Catholics, Devil’s Workshop – This came out the same day as Black Letter Days, but it has considerably fewer songs, and was my favorite of the two at first. I’m not sure I could easily pick a favorite at this point. The title apparently refers to marijuana, which I think has more euphemisms than anything except sex and death.
Velvety – From what I understand, this was an early song of Frank’s, which had been released in instrumental form as a Pixies B-side. He said that he might not have remembered all the lyrics he originally wrote for it, but he recalled the gist. Since I’m sure he was a better songwriter when he was working on this album, any changes were probably for the better. It’s a thematic sister to “Velouria,” my favorite Pixies song, as both relate to the lost continent of Lemuria and the idea that some of its survivors moved to the caves under Mount Shasta in California. The narrative is more straightforward here than in “Velouria,” relating the tale of a Lemurian girl who saved the narrator’s life, after which he fell in love with her. There is indeed a town called Weed just north of Mount Shasta; that was not merely another pot reference.
Out of State – A sad sort of song in which the narrator’s partner cheated on him and wants him to come back, but he doesn’t trust her, so he’s contemplating traveling far away. Pretty typical theme for a Frank song, really. He’s said it was inspired by Del Shannon, whose song “Handyman” he covered with Teenage Fanclub.
His Kingly Cave – I find this one rather dreamlike, with the whistling wind at the beginning and the abstract and strangely paranoid lyrics. It’s actually based on a true story, or at least a true experience, when Frank and his girlfriend visited Graceland while on hallucinogenic mushrooms. He admitted it was a dumb thing to do, but hey, he got a good song out of it.
San Antonio, TX – There’s a definite bar-band song to this one, with the steel guitar and honky-tonk piano. It also strikes me as a good driving song. Speaking of which, this album came out right around when I was first learning to drive. Kind of appropriate, considering how many of his songs are about driving and travel in general.
Bartholomew – This is one of those songs that sounds like it’s about something specific, but I’m not sure what. I’ve seen it suggested that it’s about insanity, but that’s still fairly broad.
Modern Age – An enjoyable song that progresses from prehistoric times to recent ones. I suppose part of the message is that the present is always the modern age. Well, unless you ask someone who says we’re currently in the post-modern age. I don’t know of any group of humans without little toes, but there is apparently a persistent rumor that future humans will only have four toes on each foot, as the little toe is basically useless. Evolution doesn’t really work that way, but perhaps the first verse is supposed to take place in the future, with communication achieved through telepathy. It’s an idea, anyway.
Are You Headed My Way? – This and “Modern Age” are a good pair, both structured around short verses and a catchy, repetitive chorus. The song has a spiritual air to it.
Heloise – Frank has actually revealed the subject of this song, so we don’t have to guess like we do with “Bartholomew.” Apparently he had the title first, and a quick Internet search revealed that one of the most famous people with the name was Heloise of Argenteuil. She was known for her love affair with her tutor, the theologian Peter Abelard. Her uncle had Abelard forcibly castrated, after which Peter became a monk, while Heloise went to live in an abbey. They exchanged letters long after this, and they were buried next to each other. The song refers to Heloise and Abelard’s “only boy” being taken away. Apparently it’s not entirely clear what actually happened to him, but if both of the parents went to live in convents, that seems likely.
The Scene – I like the build-up at the beginning and the electric guitar part, but overall this is probably the most forgettable song on the album.
Whiskey in Your Shoes – A song about depressed people drinking, the people described including a man whose son died and someone who’s getting divorced.
Fields of Marigold – The album ends with this number, which is light in terms of lyrics, but has a nice, expansive sound to it that makes it a great closer.
Next time, it’s the last main album released under the Frank Black and the Catholics name. (I had previously said THIS one was the last, but I was forgetting about Show Me Your Tears.)