Frank Black and The Catholics – The Complete Studio Albums

Reviews

Frank Black and The Catholics

The Complete Studio Albums

Demon Music Group – 2022

Rating: 8.0


A recently-issued box set collects the six albums that Frank Black released with his backing band, The Catholics, between 1998 and 2003. Gathered into a single artifact, they provide a near-complete view of an oft-overlooked era of the once-and-future Pixie’s career.

Back in the nineties, Black Francis was viewed as something of a curmudgeon; at least he was within my circle of teenage Frank Black-obsessed friends. For example, he had a reputation as a difficult interview subject – a far cry from the welcoming, almost jovial figure that currently stands at the center of the ever-continuing Pixies reunion.

And, quite honestly, that’s the way we liked him: the irritable mad genius, personified on tracks like “Ten Percenter” and “Hate Me.” The thing is, those personas may have been character acting all along. The former song – as we’d eventually learn once our musical knowledge expanded – was an homage to Iggy Pop; the latter was – as he would state in the liner notes to the outtake compilation Oddballs – Frank trying to be Joe Strummer. If anything, we were actually taken aback when, in our opportunity to meet him, Black wasn’t the least bit standoffish, and even amenable to pose for a selfie (well before anybody was actually calling them selfies).

By the time of that encounter – October 1998 – the “real” Frank Black was beginning to reveal himself in his music as well. Just a month earlier, Black had released his first album with a newly-christened backing band, the Catholics. In a reversal of course from his earlier work, Black’s 1996 album, The Cult of Ray, had been recorded at Sound City in Los Angeles with little in the way of overdubs or studio enhancements. When the album flopped commercially, it not only left Black in search of a new record label, but resolved to doubling-down on a no-frills approach to recording: specifically, tracking everything live in the studio, and mixing it immediately to two stereo-paired tracks.

The first album yielded by this approach, Frank Black and The Catholics was committed to tape in early 1997 by the same band that had recorded Cult of Ray two years earlier. Cult of Ray had already significantly dialed back the wild eclecticism of Black’s first two solo records – 1993’s Frank Black, and 1994’s masterful Teenager of the Year – and on FB&TC, the live-in-studio mentality revealed a group that had developed both muscularity and road-tested tightness. Even when the material lags on FB&TC – as it occasionally does on the album’s second half – the band’s chemistry is undeniable.

Behind its 90s-era-Photoshop-nightmare cover, FB&TC is a raw document of Black’s shifting lyrical approach, and smoldering, slow-burn guitars. Black’s Telecaster occupies the left stereo channel throughout, chugging out the jagged rhythms and unique chord changes that provide a throughline from Come on Pilgrim to Beneath the Eyrie. In the right channel, Lyle Workman – who had recorded with Black since Teenager of the Year – wraps melodies that are nearly as lyrical as anything provided by Black.

With these elements pushed to the forefront – plus the steady underpinning of David McCaffrey (bass) and Scott Boutier (drums) – FB&TC immediately establishes itself as a “Rock Album” from the man who had seemingly mocked the very notion of “Rock Music” on the Pixies-era screamer of the same name; and the man who had more recently devoted at least three tracks on Cult of Ray to similarly vague critiques of contemporary rock culture. This newfound directness had the potential to arouse suspicion; and as someone who had only become a Pixies fanatic over the previous year or so, and had spent many hours parsing the dense verbiage and historical references of Teenager-era tracks like “Superabound” and “Olé Mulholland,” there was a danger of these new songs sounding, dare I say, a little plain.

In the inaugural installment of our In the Wilderness feature, I posited that the best Frank Black songs are often the ones that contain the most proper nouns. This feels particularly true of the Catholics era, and is a template established on FB&TC: evidenced by album highlights “Back to Rome” (the Visigoths make an appearance), “Dog Gone” (which contains a litany of references to global locales… and Barstow, California), and the Jonathan Richman tribute “The Man Who Was Too Loud.” While travelogues would become a hallmark of the Catholics era, some of those on FB&TC feel either undercooked and/or overwhelmed by the overall “bigness” provided from a more immediate recording approach.

The clear exception is FB&TC‘s sterling opening track, “All My Ghosts.” Released as the album’s advance single, “Ghosts” matches the Catholics’ raw power, a killer backing vocal hook, and a set of lyrics that provide intriguingly-vague glimpses – without sounding like Black needed to lean on a road map or library card to finish them. While I can’t quite share the opinion of Frank Black himself, Ben Mumphrey (who penned the liner notes to the box set being reviewed here), or even my colleague J. Long, all of whom contend that FB&TC stands among Black’s finest ever albums, “All My Ghosts” convinces me that it could have.

Released a mere six months after FB&TC, 1999’s Pistolero is a similarly-mixed bag. Despite boasting a comparable sonic palette, Pistolero was the product of a different band, with new lead guitarist Rich Gilbert replacing Workman; Gilbert would remain with the Catholics for the rest of their run, despite his absence on 2002’s Devil’s Workshop. Providing a similarly jagged angularity to Workman, Gilbert’s presence would add a slightly punkier edge to Pistolero, while retaining the brute force that had defined FB&TC.

While it doesn’t contain any classics on par with “All My Ghosts,” Pistolero is arguably more consistent that its predecessor – at least when comparing its two sides. There are still a few tracks that fall flat: “I Love Your Brain” and “Smoke Up” fizzle in their choruses, after promising opening verses; and no amount of proper nouns can salvage the aimless “I Want Rock and Roll,” which was inexplicably released as the album’s lone single. Its B-side, the raging “I Switched You,” fares better, but only marginally.

Still, Pistolero‘s highlights surpass most of those from FB&TC. First, there’s the rollicking “Western Star,” which arguably boasts more great hooks than the album’s remaining thirteen tracks combined. Next, “Billy Radcliffe” harkens back to the sci-fi obsessions of Black’s earlier work, while operating within the country/western ones of his then-current incarnation. “Skeleton Man” is another winner, as is the Pixies-esque closer, “So. Bay” – which does shape-shifting more successfully than the earlier mini-epic, “So Hard to Make Things Out.”

Perhaps out of frustration with the limitations of a four-piece band with zero overdubs, and/or inspired by a significantly stronger set of songs, the Catholics’ lineup expanded for 2001’s Dog in the Sand. As evidenced by the album’s cover, the core band had grown to include a fifth member: guitarist Dave Phillips. On several of Dog‘s best tracks, Phillips and Rich Gilbert shift to the pedal steel guitar, providing a much welcome shade of color, and deepening the country impulses that had lurked along the edges of the group’s first two records.

The ensemble is further fleshed out by the return of multi-instrumentalist Eric Drew Feldman, who had been Black’s not-so-secret weapon on both Frank Black and Teenager of the Year. Throughout Dog in the Sand, Feldman’s piano work offers the perfect complement to Black’s strongest set of material in years; and with additional contributions from Morris Tepper (banjo), ex-Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago, and producer Nick Vincent, Dog in the Sand crafts a far richer sonic landscape than its predecessors.

As for that aforementioned strongest set of material in years, Dog in the Sand is the only Catholics album bereft of anything that could be considered filler, and houses a handful of tracks that stand as bonafide Frank Black classics. One fan’s highlights are sure to vary from another’s, but some of my personal favorites are the ominous “I’ve Seen Your Picture,” the determined travelogue “If It Takes All Night,” and the closing title-track, which repurposes a guitar melody from Black’s 1993 B-side, “Surf Epic.”

Then there’s the album’s stellar centerpiece, “St. Francis Dam Disaster.” Inspired by the long-time Frank Black obsession William Mulholland, “St. Francis” is the track that best takes advantage of the extra hands-on-deck, with its tragic narrative built around swirling instrumental interludes. Though many of its lyrics borrowed heavily from an epic poem written about the catastrophe, “St. Francis” immediately establishes itself as one of Black’s most poignant tracks, evidenced by its ability to create a sympathetic character out of the rushing wall of water that claimed at least 431 lives in the spring of 1928.

Reinvigorated by his finest album in several years, Frank Black kicked the Catholics into a higher level of prolificacy in 2002 with the simultaneous releases of Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop. The products of two distinctly different recording sessions, the former album features a similarly-expanded lineup to that of Dog in the Sand; the latter is more stripped-down, with Dave Phillips standing in on lead guitar for the absent Rich Gilbert. These lineup sizes are similarly reflected in each album’s track listing and run-time, with the sprawling Black Letter Days featuring eighteen songs clocking in at over sixty-five minutes, and Devil’s Workshop presenting eleven in a lean thirty-three-and-a-half-minutes.

As the objectively grander statement, Black Letter Days is generally regarded as the feature piece of the pair. However, for those expecting the focus of Dog in the Sand, it’s likely to disappoint. There are several gems spread throughout – among them “California Bound,” “Valentine and Garuda,” “End of Miles,” and the title-track – but at over an hour long, it can be an imposing listen. Perhaps it’s just me, but based on its expansive length, one might feel compelled to compare Black Letter Days to Teenager of the Year. Whereas the dizzying variety of the latter made its sprawl wholly welcome, the duo-tonal nature of the former can make for a bit of a slog. Still, outside of Dog in the Sand, Black Letter Days may contain the highest number of keepers in the Catholics’ discography. Frank Black fans should only avoid it at their peril, but newcomers are advised to start elsewhere.

That elsewhere probably shouldn’t be Devil’s Workshop, though it does provide a more accessible entry-point to this era of Black’s career than its companion piece. Workshop contains its fair share of strong tracks: a completed take on the Pixies B-side “Velvety Instrumental Version,” the melodic “Out of State,” and the cryptic Elvis homage, “His Kingly Cave”; it also harbors a genuine gem in the utterly charming “San Antonio, TX.” However, coming on the heels of the consistently-excellent Dog in the Sand – and standing in the shadow of Black Letter DaysDevil’s Workshop can’t help but feel a little slight in comparison.

It turns out that – as he has writing and recording songs like “I’ll Be Blue,” “Cold Heart of Stone,” and “Whiskey in Your Shoes” – Frank Black was going through some personal turmoil during the later Catholics era. Frequently described as a divorce album, 2003’s Show Me Your Tears is a document of that turmoil, as it displays a weariness that had only been hinted at on the band’s prior records.

Full disclosure: while I know that it’s beloved among some fans, Show Me Your Tears has always been my least favorite of the Catholics’ albums, and it remains so, nearly two decades after its release. The fleshed-out arrangements help to elevate some tracks, but not only is Tears a decidedly sour record, it’s one that, musically and lyrically, generally fails to match the weight of its oft-heavy subject material. The album’s true standout track, “Everything is New,” is the one that veers most overtly into an outsider’s storytelling perspective – poetically detailing the untimely deaths of Chet Baker, Hank Williams, and Johnny Horton.

The thing is, no matter how good Show Me Your Tears was – and it is good, and occasionally excellent – it was doomed to be immediately overshadowed by something much bigger in Frank Black World. The day after the album was released, news broke that the Pixies had reunited and were set to tour the following spring. My friends and I were obviously elated by this development, but somewhere in a lengthy group e-mail chain – we weren’t yet texters – one of us posed the question that was probably on few others’ minds: “What will happen with The Catholics?”

Evidently, the answer to that question was, “pretty much nothing.” Outside of a pair of digital-only outtakes collections that surfaced in 2006, Frank Black would never release anything else with the core members of the band, nor tour with them – despite maintaining a solo career through 2010’s Nonstoperotik. In 2015, a CD box set of the Catholics’ complete works arrived to little ballyhoo; however, curiously arranged in alphabetical order by track, the set obliterated any clear reference to the group’s actual albums. When Frank, err… Black Francis, began reissuing his solo albums on vinyl in 2019, the handful of us that still cared again wondered, “What will happen with The Catholics?”

It took awhile, but the answer finally arrived earlier this summer in the form of a new box set from Demon Music Group: Frank Black and The Catholics – The Complete Studio Albums. Let me correct the title first: this is not The Complete Studio Albums, but instead The Complete ‘Released’ Studio Albums. Curiously absent from the set is the un-officially-released album Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day: also known as the only reason why many Frank Black fans (myself included) ever used Napster during its heyday. It’s a frustrating omission, particularly as the SSMVGD tracks had been included on the aforementioned 2006 and 2015 compilations (*in the off-chance that anyone involved in prepping the hopefully-inevitable roundup of the attendant B-sides and outtakes from this era actually reads this review, please keep the SSMVGD tracks in their intended running order, and preferably on their own disc*). On that note, by focusing only on the released studio albums, this new set misses some of the best recordings of the Catholics era: “Living on Soul,” “Humboldt County Massacre,” “Le Cigare Volante,” several excellent covers, and especially the SSMVGD gem “Pan American Highway,” which may be the best Catholics-era song.

Fortunately this set gets just about everything else right: the albums were all sourced from the original master tapes, and sound as good as ever; each is pressed on a quality slab of clear 180-gram vinyl (two for Black Letter Days); producer/engineer Ben Mumphrey provides insightful liner notes, which add a handful of interesting anecdotes to the Catholics’ lore; and a wealth of nice photographs help to offset the mostly-questionable visual aesthetic choices that defined this era of Frank Black’s career. All in all, it’s a most-welcome and long-overdue collection for those to whom these albums were (and remain) important, especially since all but FB&TC and Pistolero are seeing their first-ever release on vinyl as part of this set.

Another relevant question remains though: will this collection actually revive interest in Frank Black and The Catholics? The odds seem stacked against it. First off, the albums are not – as of this time – being packaged individually. If you’re curious about Dog in the Sand because you’ve read good things, you’ll still have to shell out for Pistolero and Show Me Your Tears to have your own copy on vinyl. They’re all worth owning, but the price of a quality, seven-disc box may deter the curious. Secondly, even as a devoted fan of this material, I’m not fully convinced that the tepid critical response to much of it was all that wrong, per se. I love these albums, but I’m also fully aware that a lot of that love is tied up in fond memories of the personal whirlwind years between the ages of 19-24 in which they were released, and the sharing of them with two of my closest friends.

Lastly, this release comes just before the arrival of another new Pixies record, Doggerel. Even with the band’s pull on social media – which remains strong, despite the mostly-jaded response to their reunion-era material – there was very little fanfare accompanying The Complete Studio Recordings. Like Show Me Your Tears, this set is ultimately bound to be overshadowed by bigger news in Frank Black World. All of this is likely to ensure that these six albums remain cult items. Not a problem. Unlike the days in which these records were released for the first time, Mr. Frank Black Francis seems to have achieved financial security, for both the foreseeable future and well beyond. Let these albums remain out there for the diehards. That’s the way we like them.

Author

  • Matt Ryan founded Strange Currencies Music in January 2020, and remains the site's editor-in-chief. The creator of the "A Century of Song" project and co-host of the "Strange Currencies Podcast," Matt enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has a particular affinity for 60s pop, 90s indie rock, and post-bop jazz. He is an avid collector of vinyl, and a multi-instrumentalist who has played/recorded with several different bands and projects.

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