(Take Me To the Hospital)
Frank Black or Black Francis, or whatever he calls himself always gets my attention. He's that righteous dude you know well enough to know he has flaws he never lets people see. Early in life he received those rules of decorum most people miss and without fail lives by them. He appears to be smart as hell, but there is always the possibility that is just a part of the act that pulls in the dudes while his blunted macho draws the ladies to his flame. In other words, a consummate player.
The problem with consummate players is that while they play the game of the everyday with shocking ease, they rarely make a definitive statement. Pixies proved to be more of a synergistic arrangement than was expected with the relaxed rollouts of solo material over the years. With the exception of Pistolero, none of these have proven to be classics on the level that Pixies records are, regardless of the hundreds of times you've listened to them. Maybe it is true that players only love you when they are playing.
His latest project Grand Duchy is a different thing. Here Mr. Black is accompanied by the missus, Violet Clark, and supposedly they repaired to the studio and made this record there, unrehearsed, spontaneous, and rather fresh. It's a baby that resembles both mom and pop equally; her breathless electro thrashes lie commingle comfortably with his timeworn groove. The opening track "Come on Over to my House" is classic Frank Black sneer-and scream strut, dressed up in the love of her synths, the pauses after lines like "Here comes Rosy, he's a tricky bitch" a testament to his impeccable comedic timing. "Lovesick" is all fat keys and that Keith Richards guitar line Francis has frequently mined over the years making a bed for Clark's engaging vocals "Don't stop for reasons, be a little bolder, everybody's got their lovesick seasons."
The real magic happens on the sleepwalkin' feel-good hit of the season "Fort Wayne." The Mr. is half-lidded falsetto, music on "kids swayin' to a rock 'n' roll beat" against the purr of her hum and la la la's. When she does assert her voice here, she sounds a lot like Kim Deal in the old days. One is tempted to say a player has his type, but then Pixies never sounded this relaxed, this lovely.
The surprise song is the unabashed new wave revisionism of "Black Suit." He sings his best baritone New Romantic lead, only breaking character when he summons a roar impression and the song chugs along on tracks that Simple Minds laid down years ago. It swings like a metronome. It is a tryst in the ice hotel. I can picture the girls in the club doing that thing where they swivel back and forth, purse in one hand, cigarette in the other, bangs flopping in time.
Something missing from the Mr.'s contribution is his characteristic obliqueness. Frank Black songs are often little puzzles that invite dissection, but here the cards are played out. The closing ditty "Volcano!" rumbles toward eruption as Clark finds footing with her lyrics as it progresses. It feels playfully, delightfully improvised, a lot of "hey check this out" guitar licks, nakedly building mutual tension. "He's gonna blow!" she offers as the rumble picks up speed. There is a moment of eerie quite, is it? Is it? Is it gonna explode.....and blip it ends. You can see them both smiling at the end, perhaps mouthing "I Got You, babe" to each other, letting their private joke become momentarily public, each confident the other thinks it is still just as funny.