In the Wilderness is a feature in which a group of Strange Currencies contributors examine an overlooked period of an artist’s career. While originally intended as a podcast, “social distancing” has necessitated a different approach. For the time being, In the Wilderness has taken shape in the form of a “Slack chat.”
For the inaugural installment of In the Wilderness, I have recruited my two oldest friends, J. Long and George Budney. Our friendship of roughly twenty-five years was at least partially forged by a shared love of Frank Black – the once and future leader of alternative rock icons, Pixies.
Black’s first two post-Pixies records (Frank Black and Teenager of the Year) are masterfully-executed collections of eclectic influences and sharp, reference-heavy songwriting. For his third solo record, 1996’s The Cult of Ray, Black took a back-to-basics approach, recording to two-track with a stripped-down four-piece band. By 1998, that group would be rechristened as “The Catholics.” Over the next six years, The Catholics would record seven studio LPs, while maintaining an intense touring schedule.
During those years, George, J., and myself closely followed every move by Frank Black and The Catholics. These were the years of our late-teens/early-twenties. We went to high school together in Flagstaff, Arizona, and each of the three of us attended one of Arizona’s state universities (J. at UofA, George at ASU, and myself at NAU). Despite our relative distance, we all kept regular contact – contact that often centered around music. During those years, no artist was more central to that friendship than Frank Black. Here are some of our recollections:
MR: So, perhaps some background on our familiarity with Frank Black before The Catholics. We were all pretty familiar with his first three solo albums and the Pixies stuff “pre-Catholics,” right?
JL: By that point – yes.
GB: At that point kinda. I think the Pixies and The Catholics were about the same time for me.
JL: Cult of Ray was actually my first.
GB: Teenager for me.
MR: Teenager was my first. It was a bit of a slow grower for me, but an album that really benefited from [me] having a 100-disc changer. I’d listen on random, and always liked the songs when they came up.
JL: I think you bought Teenager for me. “Calistan” was a top jam in those days.
MR: I feel like when the “All My Ghosts” single showed up in the summer of ’98, it was a pretty big deal within our circle.
JL: Yeah, “All My Ghosts” was significant. I hadn’t been that excited about a new record in a very long time.
GB: That whole summer [The Catholics] had been a rumor, and then the single hit. I think you found it at Gopher Sounds [long gone record shop in Flagstaff, Arizona], and we probably fought over who could buy it.
MR: Definitely Gopher Sounds. It was an import.
GB: $18 for four songs!
MR: I feel like we already had tickets to see him live when I found the single. Frankblack.net says that he played the Mason Jar [a now-defunct bar/rock club in Phoenix that hosted 18-and-over shows] on June 20, 1998. We went to that show, and then saw him again on October 16. I feel like we were already familiar with “All My Ghosts” when we saw him in June.
JL: I believe so. I had the aforementioned CD single.
MR: The single is great, right?
GB: That it is, and I like it more for everything else beyond “All My Ghosts.”
JL: Yeah, it’s kick-ass. Part of why I was psyched about the full-length. I didn’t know “Changing of the Guard” was Dylan. You had to tell me that.
MR: That was early on in my “Dylan discovery” era, so that cover was really well-timed for me.
GB: It supports a thesis I have going in that The Catholics was a period for Frank to figure out what music he liked again. It’s like the period people go through after a loss or big change. He needed to ‘fool around’ with blues/road music for a while. Like Jordan playing baseball…but more successful. “Changing of the Guard” is the first of a ton of covers, and they’re all great.
MR: Yeah, there were a TON of covers in that era.
JL: I’d argue they’re not ALL great. But the goofy ones are at least entertaining. “Song of the Shrimp,” anyone?
MR: I scored an import copy of the FB&TC album sometime in August. Again, it was at Gopher Sounds, and yeah George, we definitely fought over who got to buy it.
GB: A time before CD-Rs, which means I made you make me a tape copy.
MR: I’ve been thinking about how much technology was changing in that span of six or so years. It’s a weird relic of that era that we were arguing over who got to pay $18 for a CD.
JL: That summer, CD-Rs went on sale for $4.99 EACH at my school. I bought as many as I could.
GB: I don’t think I got a burner for another year or so, as part of my Gateway desktop with a freakin’ massive 13” CRT monitor.
MR: What were your initial impressions of the full-length album?
JL: My expectations were filled, completely. I think we’ve talked before about this, but I was apeshit for that album.
GB: I had it in the solo rotation for about six weeks. Drove my roommate crazy, until it grew on him. We started our own little ‘cult’ around it. “Dog Gone” still holds up as one his better end of the world songs. “Do You Feel Bad About It” has definitely been a good break up song for me.
MR: I definitely liked [the album], but strongly preferred the first half of it to the second.
GB: Yes, it shifts around “Six-Sixty-Six,” which I believe is another cover.
JL: Yeah, that was Larry Norman. See also references in Come on Pilgrim. I think for the most part, the Frank Black & The Catholics albums tend to be front-loaded with the most accessible, hooky tracks.
MR: I feel like some of the songwriting feels a bit phoned in. Is that fair?
GB: It totally is, on a lot of his stuff, especially compared to some of the earlier Pixies or Teenager. [It] goes back to the “finding a voice” comment. It doesn’t feel quite fully developed, but when it connects it’s great.
JL: I don’t remember thinking that at the time. Nothing immediately stands out in my memory as being subpar, but if I went back looking for it….maybe. You never know. That thing about “you never cross the same river twice” applies to records too. I recall you saying the album didn’t quite match the expectation set up by the single. That’s valid, and I can get it, but I definitely didn’t feel the same way – at least then.
MR: I distinctly remember Frank referring to “I Need Peace” as “B-material” when we saw him that October, which is somewhat odd, because I loved the B-sides to the “All My Ghosts” single.
GB: Leaving “Living on Soul” off was a crime.
MR: Not quite leaving “Rain” off of Revolver, but yeah, it would have been a better record in my mind with those tracks on it. I think one of the things I really liked about those B-sides – and “All My Ghosts” – was that there was a lot of weird storytelling going on. I’ve noticed that one thing in common with a lot of my favorite Frank Black songs is a lot of proper nouns, like the dense songwriting on Teenager.
JL: Huh. No shit. I never noticed that about the proper nouns. I bet I will from here out, though.
MR: He seemed to turn away from some of the “bookishness” of his earlier work during this era.
GB: The same way he got tired of referencing the Bible with the Pixies. Bible -> Depression-era history -> road songs.
MR: Pistolero came out only six months later. That’s a quick turnaround. We got a bit of a preview of it at that October show, where we met him.
GB: Pistolero is so spotty. I really want to love it, and still love “Western Star,” but it’s kind of a crapshoot. It feels a little more unfinished to me.
JL: I was stone cold broke in 1999. I think I bought three albums that year. And still I found a way to pick up Pistolero on the day it came out.
MR: A day-of-release purchase for me, too. It was nice to not have to fight for an import copy. I definitely preferred the first one as well at the time. I think it’s fair to say that there’s a bit of B-material on [Pistolero].
JL: I won’t say I was let down by it, but I did not – at the time – like it as much as its predecessor.
GB: I like what he’s going for on Pistolero. It feels a little more engaged, but there is a weird herky-jerky-ness to a lot of the songs, to their detriment. “Tiny Heart” comes to mind. He’s trying to find hooks, but missing sometimes.
JL: “Western Star” is the best song I know about cheeseburgers. Although it has little competition in that regard, as far as I can think of right now, at least.
MR: “I Love Your Brain” and “I Want Rock and Roll” always annoyed me.
JL: OK….now THOSE are examples of some phoned-in writing for sure.
MR: Those ones seemed a bit lazy, but in my listen to the [Complete Recordings] box set this weekend, I found myself really enjoying a lot of the Pistolero tracks. “Skeleton Man” was definitely better than I remembered it.
JL: “Skeleton Man” is on my short list of greats.
MR: I feel like it’s just a couple proper nouns short of greatness, but it’s a good song.
GB: At the Mason Jar he said “Skeleton Man” was about the US-60 between Payson and Globe, AZ. That blew my mind. I just drove that last weekend. Those lyrics make more sense for that road, given that it’s across the Apache Reservation in the “hot sun.”
MR: That’s cool. I feel like Teenager-era Frank would’ve left a few more breadcrumbs. Discogs tells me that a vinyl copy of Pistolero sold for $126 not too long ago. I’ll hold on to mine though.
GB: Seriously? I feel like it could be one of those albums that people get REALLY into for no real reason. I’m kind of like that (or was for a while) with Honeycomb [Frank Black’s 2005 solo record].
JL: I’m mildly surprised that even exists.
MR: I have the first two Catholics records on vinyl. They’re probably pretty rare. There weren’t a ton of people making/buying vinyl in the late-90s. I could probably trade them each for a roll of toilet paper. Maybe two for Pistolero. So, FB&TC or Pistolero?
GB: Definitely FB&TC.
JL: FB&TC is better than Pistolero overall, but let the record reflect that I enjoy both.
MR: Agreed. It’s tempting to give the old “could make a great single album” argument, but I don’t know how I’d go about sequencing that particular record. Different guitarists on both albums. Lyle Workman played on the first, Rich Gilbert on the rest of The Catholics stuff.
GB: Good ol’ Lyle. Responsible for some great They Might Be Giants too, I believe.
MR: Yep, and Beck. Probably more money in studio work at that time. People were still buying music. Which is a good segue into the next album… The first – and only – thing that I ever downloaded from Napster, Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day.
JL: Yeah, I got my copy from you.
GB: Same. Back when we still out printed labels on burned CDs to make them somehow more legit. Is that considered a proper release?
JL: I would argue it is. Copies were made and distributed, but not many.
MR: I take pride in the fact that the cover art I made for it – low-res JPEGs and all – is better than the art for either of the first two Catholics albums. Baskerville font on white matte cardstock is better than whatever Photoshop hell is happening on FB&TC and Pistolero.
JL: Agreed on that cover. Pistolero always particularly hurt my eyes.
GB: Both FB&TC and Pistolero feel very “marketing department” to me.
JL: That’s exactly how I’d put it. The style was very of its time.
GB: Market tested for intellectual under-employed nerds in their mid-20s.
MR: First-year graphic design student in the late-90s?
GB: No, I’d say first-year marketing employee that is trying to be edgy within “the rules.”
MR: I can’t even come up with an explanation for FB&TC. Pistolero is at least “on brand,” if poorly executed.
GB: Somewhere I still have my t-shirt with that weird terra-cotta warrior thingy.
MR: Yep, me too.
JL: Yeah, what are those in the background anyway, Maori warriors? CULTURAL APPROPRIATION THOMPSON, C’MON.
MR: Bold use of both the “copy” and “paste” functions.
JL: Back then, it was new technology.
GB: Was he still on a big label at that point?
MR: Nope. SpinArt. Okay, back to SSMVGD.
GB: I was reading On the Road for the first time when I first heard it. Have always tied “Pan American Highway” to it.
JL: “Pan American Highway” is a high point for me.
MR: Yes, “Pan American Highway” is a classic Frank track.
GB: “Le Cigre Volante”
MR: Yep, George beat me to it. Also a great song.
JL: Dammit, “Cigre Volante” was mine as well.
MR: So those are the two standouts. The rest?
GB: Good to see “Humboldt” show up, but it is a little out of place. Maybe because I’m used to it on the [“All My Ghosts”] single.
MR: I think I like this version of “His Kingly Cave” more than the later, more polished one.
GB: Yes, agree there. The unpolished-ness in general benefits The Catholics.
JL: At least a few covers there too. It may seem like a bit of a trifle, but I like “Angst.”
GB: Funny to follow up with “Sleep.” They play well together. Again, the Catholics was his cover era. He’s just trying to have fun (again).
MR: Yeah, and it makes for a really fun album. I like that it wasn’t officially released, but was made readily available for people to find, especially in a time in which a lot of artists were aggressively pushing back against file sharing.
MG: Alright, Dog In the Sand…
JL: Best of them so far. I kind of think Dog was the sound of them achieving the goal that perhaps they were shooting for.
GB: Yes – it’s the best of the group, I think. And holds up the most.
MR: Yes, for me DITS was an album that far surpassed the first two. I immediately felt that it was a classic.
JL: A brief Google search will reveal that the lyrics to “St. Francis Dam Disaster” are lifted directly, plagiarized even, from a poem of similar name.
MR: I was wondering if you’d bring that up.
JL: It was reasonable to assume I would.
MR: It was. That still bugs me. That was certainly the song that I considered to be the “centerpiece” of a great album. Kind of knocked it down a peg for me.
GB: Definitely does. But it’s still the standout track
MR: There’s absolutely no mention of [the source] in the liner notes.
JL: I think he did a great job of distilling the source material into a better form.
MR: Yeah, the source is a bit more “winding,” but still…
JL: The original poem is like 70 stanzas or something. He made it way better. But yeah, a few verses were lifted directly.
MR: It’s a great song, and it really shows how adding a few musicians to the mix helped to flesh out the songs. The piano work on that album really helps to elevate it over the first two – that’s Eric Drew Feldman on keys, the secret MVP of the first two solo albums – and the songs are just better.
JL: Yeah, the songs are way better.
GB: So what’s number two on the album?
MR: Definitely the title track. Great song. Always had a soft spot for “If It Takes All Night” as well, even though it kind of reminds me of Meat Loaf.
JL: The title track originates from an instrumental song on one of his earliest singles
MR: “Surf Epic,” right? I found that single [“Hang On To Your Ego”] a couple of years back, but had forgotten where that melody had come from. It was a pleasant surprise.
GB: I’ve always loved “Llano del Rio.”
JL: I’m a big fan of “The Swimmer.” That would also be on my list.
GB: Yeah, good song. “Robert Onion” is strong.
MR: Solid album, all the way through.
GB: Yes, it’s the best of the group. I love the slide [guitar] in it. My favorite shows of that era were the solo slide guitar shows. Of course, I was also really into Junior Brown at that point too.
MR: Yeah, those are the instrumental touches that were kind of brushed aside on the first couple of records. There are a lot more proper nouns on DITS. Therefore better.
MG: Okay, the two simultaneously released ones now.
JL: Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop.
GB: Which always felt like a misstep to me… I like Black Letter Days better, but I think it hurt both overall. Couldn’t dig into either properly.
JL: I remember telling a buddy of mine about the “two albums on the same day” thing and he said, “Who does he think he is, fuckin’ Tom Waits?” …and I was like…”Well, now that you mention it…”
MR: Yep, good point. Waits did it first. Do you think that’s why Frank recorded “The Black Rider,” or just a coincidence? Waits’ albums only came out three months before, so it’s probably a coincidence. Frank was known to work fast, but not that fast. I bought both of those a week before moving to Oregon the first time. They’ll always be associated with that time for me, but – buying them at the Wherehouse in Flagstaff – they set me back about $40 that I probably shouldn’t have spent.
GB: Did we ever hear a reason why he did the two at the same time?
MR: He’s a machine. I definitely saw Black Letter Days as “disc one” and Devil’s Workshop as “disc two.”
JL: I have them in my head that way too, but no idea why, other than simply the fact I heard Black Letter Days first.
GB: I always feel like if I had started with Devil’s Workshop I would like it more. “California Bound” is up there on BLD.
JL: That’s a high point for me.
MR: Me too. I also like “Valentine and Garuda” and “End of Miles.”
GB: “End of Miles” is good. “Garuda” reminds me of my dad because one of [his] masks is named Garuda.
MR: I get that. As I’m working on the A Century of Song thing, I’m finding that I’m very sentimental about “dad songs.”
GB: How do you feel about the opening and ending with “The Black Rider”? Which one is better? Rock or lounge? I’m inclined to lounge.
MR: I prefer the rock, but neither are essential to me.
JL: I dig Tom AND Frank, but the “Black Rider” covers aren’t essential to me either. They fall into that “goofy shit I still enjoy” category I brought up earlier.
MR: It definitely piqued my interest in Waits, who I didn’t know much about at the time.
GB: Same. “Cold Heart of Stone” is another divorce song. Just building up to the divorce record that is Honeycomb.
MR: Hold on there, George. I think we have a more overt divorce record to cover in a few minutes….
GB: Good call.
MR: Eighteen tracks on BLD. That’s a lot, and it feels way longer than the 22-song album that he made eight years earlier.
GB: Yes! Eighteen feels excessive. BLD feels darker, somehow.
JL: Yeah, I agree.
MR: Yep, and some of it just drags…
GB: In the right mood…but it could use some editing.
MR: There’s some really good stuff on it, but I agree, some editing would help. Looking at the tracklist of Devil’s Workshop, I would say that it starts off really strong. Those first four songs are solid – though, like I said, I prefer the earlier version of “His Kingly Cave.”
JL: I also liked the first “Kingly Cave.”
GB: First is better, goes back to my ‘fun’ comment. This one drags a little. DW is one of the more consistent albums. It’s also one of the shorter ones too.
MR: I feel like the quality dips quite a bit after “San Antonio.” I’ve always liked that one a lot.
GB: “San Antonio” is my standout.
MR: Any songs from the second half of that album that deserve mention?
GB: Not really. I want to like “Modern Age,” but it’s a little too goofy. I’ve always liked the startup in “Fields of Marigold” but the chorus doesn’t work for me.
MR: I think that stretch from “Bartholomew” through “The Scene” is pretty much Frank on autopilot. “Modern Age” is the best of those.
JL: I’d stand up for “Modern Age.” It’s one of my favorites on the disc. “Fields of Marigold” is a great album closer.
MR: Good point, it wouldn’t work anywhere else on the album, but makes for a good closer.
MG: Shall we move on to Show Me Your Tears?
GB: Yes. The true divorce album. Another storytelling album. It’s when Frank is at his best.
JL: I think “Massif Centrale” would be in my Frank Black and The Catholics starter kit, as a recommended “point of entry” if it weren’t for THAT ONE PART and I know you know what I mean.
MR: “Sleep in gardens where I play my lute…”
JL: I mean hell, I love the song…but hard to keep a straight face for that part.
MR: It’s one of the more memorable ones on the album. I’m surprised at how many of those songs seemed distant to me as I listened to them yesterday.
GB: I like “Everything is New.” Piano for the win.
MR: I also like “Everything is New”; best song on the album, probably.
GB: I think “Manitoba” is his best era closer.
MR: Another one that could only work in the closer spot.
JL: I like that one too. It was on the disc we handed out when I got married. I like “Coastline.”
GB: Good wedding song. Nice mix-up on the divorce record.
JL: It was that one or something from Gwar.
GB: Ha! The Hank Williams verse in “Everything is New” is masterful.
MR: Proper nouns, George. This album always felt a bit “tired” to me. I know it was probably a cathartic album for him, but it just never did a lot for me. It’s my least favorite of The Catholics albums.
GB: Hmm, don’t about least favorite. Maybe least memorable.
MR: I’ve always hated that line about trading a VCR for a wad of cash in “Horrible Day”; even in 2003 that was really dated. Sorry if that’s a petty gripe.
GB: Maybe a little. That whole song feels like a gripe.
JL: Yes, it’s incredibly dated, but it never ruined the song for me. It’s Frank in classic storytelling mode. The song starts with him throwing in a movie to take his mind off shit. For him to pawn it is a natural development of the narrative.
MR: Fair point. That one at least has a memorable chorus. Some of the others are pretty forgettable.
JL: That song is probably the Stonesiest that Frank Black has ever Stonesed. That could have been on Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers, or Exile.
MR: I’d go with “Hermaphroditos” as his Stonesiest.
JL: Oh yeah, good call on “Hermaphroditos” (choke on that, spell check).
GB: This is the album where the band feels most developed. It’s also probably the furthest he could have gone with the sub-genre. He’s taken it as far as he could. Least of which is because of the Pixies and all that sweet reunion cash. The Catholics always kind of felt like him trying to make a paycheck, but having fun while doing so. Like he had a bunch of shit to take care of, this was his side hustle/therapy.
MR: Which is interesting, because the Pixies reunion rumors started up at the exact point in which SMYT came out.
MG: Okay. What’s everybody’s favorite Catholics album? Least favorite?
Favorite: Dog in the Sand
Least: Show Me Your Tears
JL: Favorite: Dog in the Sand
Least would be Black Letter Days/Devil’s Workshop. Flip a coin, I guess. I couldn’t find a logical reason to pick one from the other, but the reasons would be the same for either – the highs are less high, and farther between. I’d still rather listen to either of those than pretty much anything I’ve heard on FM radio in the past ten years.
GB: Favorite is probably SSMVGD.
Least… probably Devil’s Workshop, but it’s least among a bunch I do overall love. Imperfect, and he’s done better, but I can’t imagine Frank without The Catholics.
MR: What do we think it was that made him such a touchstone for us during those years?
GB: Combination of age, carryover from Teenager of the Year, and the cult of being a fan. I do love the music, but I don’t think I would’ve as much if not for Teenager, and for you guys also being fans.
MR: Those were years of musical discovery for me, particularly stuff from the 60s-70s, and I think those records were really linked to that era of rock music.
GB: Not sure that level of fandom would be possible today. Too much stuff/too easy to get.
MR: That’s a good point. Frank took some effort, but not too much. There was something appealing about that.
GB: Part of it was having to really commit to an album after spending $20 on it. Required a time investment to really judge it.
MR: That too. Seeing him live, as close and as often as we did, helped a lot. Those Mason Jar shows were really my first club shows. I had been to Club Rio to see Ben Folds Five, but the Mason Jar was a different world entirely.
GB: Live shows did make a difference. I think my hearing is still messed up.
JL: I think it was such a touchstone for us because of the intersection of rock music and other weird folklore. There were also aliens and weird roadside ephemera and fucking skeleton men hanging out in those songs, and we loved that stuff. I still do.
GB: Oh hell yes, folklore for certain.
MR: I totally agree. That stuff was really strong in s/t [Frank Black’s 1993 self-titled debut] and Teenager, and there was part of me that always hoped he’d do a bit more of it with The Catholics. With that said, perhaps there was more of it than I noticed at the time.
JL: There’s the thing about authenticity too; those first Catholics albums were actually the sound of a band playing in a room, which maybe that was aspirational to us on some level.
MR: Definitely. Those were years (1998-2003) where I was desperately missing playing music in a band. There was a realness about The Catholics that was appealing to me.
GB: For me it was: 1) good music for the time (still is, in most cases), and; 2) hanging out with you guys. Bonding over something.
MR: Frank definitely felt like he was “ours” at that time. I remember that strong feeling of fan-boy defensiveness when these albums all got middling reviews, and feeling like DITS was an album that would finally get him some credit.
JL: Yeah, the bonding aspect too. All of my friendships at that age were centered around music in some way or other. Still are. Which means I have less friends now.
MR: Okay, so our last task is to build a playlist. Five songs each, one round at a time. J., you have first pick:
JL: I’ll take “The Swimmer.”
GB: I’ll start with “Living on Soul.”
MR: “Pan American Highway.” Round two:
JL: “Skeleton Man”
GB: “Dog Gone”
MR: “All My Ghosts.” Round three:
JL: How about “Suffering.” It is probably closest to the song I would have picked here, if it hadn’t already been picked.
GB: Going with “Everything is New.”
MR: “Dog in the Sand” (we need a good closer). Round four:
JL: “Horrible Day”
GB: Sell that VCR! Gonna say “Western Star.” We need some gunslinger Frank.
MR: I’ll go with “St. Francis Dam Disaster.” Alright, last round:
JL: I’ll take “Le Cigre Volante.” It’s a toss between that one and the one George is about to say.
GB: Ooh – I’m totally going to throw you for one… Coming out left field… at his charming road musician best – “My Favorite Kiss.”
MR: Wow, that is out of left field…
GB: Personal favorite.
JL: I confess, I didn’t see that coming.
MR: Leaves me in a tough spot. I need to pick one from the “double release.” I figured George was gonna take either “California Bound” or “San Antonio” and that I’d take the leftover. Hmm…
GB: “San Antonio” would’ve been my other pick.
JL: I was sure he was going to say “California Bound.” Shows what I know.
GB: Either were good bets. Don’t feel bad.
MR: I’m gonna go with “San Antonio.” I love that circular chorus that just keeps going… Okay, fourteen good songs and “My Favorite Kiss.” Good list.
GB: Ha! I like the song. I don’t know. It’s the way he says “Baltimore.”
MR: I will respect the rules of the game.
JL: At least he didn’t pick “Nadine.”
GB: Wouldn’t be a proper collaboration with you guys if I didn’t subtly mess it up somehow…