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Reissue Of The Week

Frank Black And The Catholics – The Complete Studio Albums Box Set
JR Moores , July 15th, 2022 10:07

With The Catholics, Pixies mainman Frank Black worked hard and he worked fast. The results are well worth revisiting, says JR Moores

Charles Thompson's career has been endlessly and unfavourably evaluated in comparison to a few great records he made in his twenties. In later life, he found himself accused of "not trying hard enough" and was even subject to a Beatles-esque conspiracy theory. In 1966 Paul McCartney died, accidentally, and was replaced by talented doppelgänger. (Happy 80th, "Paul".) Likewise, flying saucers abducted the "real" Black Francis, as Thompson was known from 1986 to 1992 when he led the Pixies. His alien captors had been flattered by Thompson's songs about Roswell and the allure of distant planets, presumably, and rewarded him with adoption. Either that or they were bringing him back home now that his work was done, a bit like a shoutier E.T. An imposter, with the moniker Frank Black, took his place on Earth.

There remains scant concrete evidence of human contact with little grey beings, notwithstanding the admirable efforts of the pranksters at NASA and scientists from Blink-182. So let's contemplate the more realistic assertion that effort had been abandoned, for some reason, a curious accusation where both Thompson and McCartney are concerned.

Many were perplexed by the lo-fi approach of McCartney (1970) and Ram (1971), especially after the sparkling grandeur of The Beatles' signoff, Abbey Road. Even Ringo Starr expressed concern that his ex-bandmate was "going a bit strange". Paul's solo albums were disappointing, the drummer confessed to Melody Maker: "It's like he's not admitting that he can write great tunes." Print critics concurred. McCartney contained "no substance", wrote The Guardian's Geoffrey Cannon, who wasn't alone in finding the solo work "boastfully casual".

Yet the theory that McCartney was no longer sweating over his output, with that being the essential problem, doesn't hold up to scrutiny. McCartney hadn't been trying at all when writing the universally loved 'Yesterday'. As everybody has heard one million times before, he was literally asleep. McCartney woke up with the melody in his ever-wobbling noggin and quickly figured out accompanying chords, later adding a poignantly simple lyric which subliminally mourned the loss of his mother. In contrast, McCartney spent so long working on 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer' for take after anvil-laden take that it drove his fellow Beatles barmy. It is one of his most universally unloved songs. He worked very hard on it. (I quite like it.)

Frank Black, as Thompson rechristened himself for three solo albums followed by his work with The Catholics, received similar condemnation. Take a look at the run-down of Catholics' albums by online critic and A.I. boffin Piero Scaruffi. Each one, from 1998's self-titled Frank Black & The Catholics to 2003's Show Me Your Tears, is rated no higher than five or six out of ten. Not devastating. Not great either. Note the phrase "erratic and amateurish". Mark Prindle, a similar figure, offered more generous assessments, albeit with backhanded compliments: "I bet even my dad would like these Catholics albums!" Others were harsher. Many listeners simply jumped ship to Pixies' alt-rockin' disciples. To paraphrase Dre, they forgot about Charles. It must have been frustrating.

Frank Black & The Catholics was recorded with the same musicians who'd played on The Cult Of Ray two years prior, yet the introduction of the collective name indicated a new and, ironically, more cultish approach. While preparing songs for a big-name producer, Thompson had an epiphany: his group's preparatory demos couldn't be topped. He insisted these should be released as the finished collection. His label begged to differ and their relationship ended. The producer in question was Chili Pepper-polisher Rick Rubin and the label was Rubin's American Recordings. Had it come to fruition, the original idea could've proved massive. Look at the other hot cakes helmed by Rubin (and mastered by Vlado Meller) at the time, and you can see the waywardness of Black's thinking. As Greg Milner details in his book Perfecting Sound Forever, CDs like Californication were hypercompressed to the extreme, so that they leapt out of the speakers as intended, specifically those of Americans' cars, and sold by the bucketload to listeners who didn't mind that Rubin and Meller had sucked all dynamic range out of the mix.

Having shunned the "slicked-up, lifeless-sounding" mainstream rock scene, Thompson stuck to his "no-bullshit" guns. All Catholics albums would be recorded in the same way: live in the studio to two-track tape. No editing. No overdubs. Nowhere to hide. No bearded Frederick buffing it up for guaranteed KROQ. It was a fast and frugal way of working; one which harked back to the formative days of popular music. Recording like that means you have to be a tight little band in the first place. It also captures the occasional mistake, unscripted detail and the odd nuances that more preciously produced beat combos lack. Charles Thompson and Steve Albini may not have seen eye-to-eye since the latter had recorded Pixies' Surfer Rosa, yet both have shown commitment to a certain sonic honesty.

Thompson's obedient bandmates didn't always understand the strict commitment to recording like this. In the long run, Thompson felt it vastly improved his abilities as a musician, both in the studio and onstage. He told me this when I'd been assigned to interview him about the reformed Pixies and I couldn't resist asking about The Catholics as well. (In my defence, for years he'd suffered the opposite scenario.) As Frank Black, Thompson also worked hard on his singing. He hired a vocal coach and took pains to scream less often. He felt that Pixies' recurring screamy passages had become a route-one cliché. He stopped writing about UFOs.

Audiences would've preferred to hear him scream. Thompson's endeavours to improve at his profession, so complained reviewers like Stephen Thomas Erlewine, resulted in "disturbingly conventional" material. In its own conventional way, that's still serving to disturb, however, which for some pious aesthetes is the central purpose of art. No matter how conventional The Catholics became, and how much Thompson's songwriting appealed to the dad dollar, they never sold or resonated as widely as Pixies. This is something of a paradox if you look at the way most successful musicians are required to embrace conventionality to achieve popular recognition, but no doubt the two-track rawness helped to counter that. As Thompson half-joked in 2003, his career followed "a very slow downward spiral".

For the curious, there is much to enjoy in Frank Black & The Catholics' Complete Studio Albums. The band hit their stride on 1999's Pistolero, with no small part played by the recruitment of guitar wiz Rich Gilbert. Indeed, songs like 'So Hard To Make Things Out' feel written as an excuse to release his expressive Crazy Horse-style wig-outs. That's not to say Thompson lost his knack for oddball songsmithery. 'I Love Your Brain' honours the cerebral over the physical nature of attraction. Well, sort of. "I wanna sleep with your brain!", he cries. If Thompson were to slyly slip the spiky 'I Switched You' into the setlist of the reunited Pixies, it would take any audience's breath away.

The boogie-woogie keys of ex-Magic Band/Pere Ubu member Eric Drew Feldman contributed to a richer sound on the hook-laden tunes of 2001's Dog In The Sand. Thompson's old mucker Joey Santiago pops up on a couple of its tracks. Songs like 'Bullet', 'Hermaphroditos' and 'If It Takes All Night' would immediately qualify for any best-of comp.

As Guns 'N Roses, Bruce Springsteen and others have experienced, releasing two separate albums on the same day is rarely the canniest career move. It betrays a giddiness in the superabundance of one's own material that even the most dedicated fanbase will struggle to match. Devil's Workshop is the shorter and spikier of the two Catholics albums released on 20 August 2002. Black Letter Days is rootsier and twice as long. Again, there are some crackers on there but it suffers from Thompson's habit of wandering into the wheat fields of alt-country wistfulness, something he'd explore again later, without The Catholics, on a couple of albums recorded in Nashville. He might've been wise to repress this urge more often. The occasional and delicately positioned folky shuffler can be a welcome palette-cleansing sorbet in the midst of harder rocking numbers. Too many of them and the skip button beckons.

It is worth bearing in mind that those beloved Pixies albums weren't the most consistent recordings either. Nostalgia obscures the fact that classic bangers such as 'La La Love You' were separated by only a couple of tracks from throwaway nuggets like 'Monkey Gone To Heaven'. And unlike Pixies, The Catholics went out on a high. Written as Thompson's first marriage was crumbling, 2003's Show Me Your Tears had no skip-worthy tunes, memorable choruses aplenty, a consistent fusty ambience and confident eclecticism. This ranges from the opening stomp of 'Nadine', through various locale-based narratives of heartache and ill-fate, to the delicate lullaby of 'Coastline'. Whether singing in character or not, Thompson wavers between booze-soaked despair and slyer optimism, often within the space of the same song (or even the same line, as in cases like 'Horrible Day'). This time, even his Americana ballads were knocking it out the farm.

Before reconciling with his past and reforming Pixies, Thompson recorded a treasure trove of deeper cuts. These are erratic, yes, but practically the opposite of amateur, revealing more about the life of a working musician and prolific song-monger than fair-weather Pixies fans will ever know. "I think that in the case of Black Francis, it never really worked," Thompson said when ditching his Pixies pseudonym. "I was constantly referred to by journalists and record-company people by various combinations of the stage name and Charles Thompson: Black Thompson, Francis Thompson, Charles Francis Thompson, Black Angel — I just got sick of it. I wanted something a little more swift, a little more to the point, a little more workingman." But maybe that's exactly the kind of down-to-Earth thing an intelligent infiltrator would say, to throw us off the scent of Mars.