Frank Black

Picture of Frank Black

Frank Black

Frank Black - Frank Black ©1993 4AD/Elektra
1. Los Angeles
2. I Heard Ramona Sing
3. Hang On To Your Ego
4. Fu Manchu
5. Places Named After Numbers
6. Czar
7. Old Black Dawning
8. Ten Percenter
9. Brackish Boy
10. Two Spaces
11. Tossed (instrumental Version)
12. Parry The Wind High, Low
13. Adda Lee
14. Every Time I Go Around Here
15. Don't Ya Rile 'em

Having put the Pixies to rest (or doing so not long after this album's release), Charles Thompson switched his stage moniker from Black Francis to Frank Black and set sail on a somewhat divergent path from his previous day job. Many of the songs here utilize a lot more keyboards and "synthetics" (as the liner notes put it), though there still is quite a bit of the Pixies feel within the music. That, of course, only makes sense since Frank Black did almost all the songwriting in the Pixies. For the most part, Frank Black the album has a feel that is an extension of the last Pixies album, Trompe Le Monde. Loud, jangling guitars still play a part in the music, as well as Frank Black's odd left field lyrical approach. Songs about John Denver, Southern California and the Ramones all fit the bill here, though very vaguely hopping around the subject matter. Meanwhile, the actual songs are quite good, though not consistently his best. "Two Spaces" is a bouncy, hippety-hoppity light number, while "Old Black Dawning" is a acoustic guitar driven number with one of the coolest three part guitar sections I've heard. Occasionally the production makes the album feel a little trebly on the whole. But the use of odd synth sounds, Frank Black's unmistakeable knack to simply write great songs and even the choice of cover songs (a very catchy version of the Beach Boys' "Hang Onto Your Ego") make this solo venture a worthwhile trip.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 01/2000

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Hang On To Your Ego

Frank Black - Hang Onto Your Ego ©1993 4AD/Elektra
1. Hang Onto Your Ego
2. The Ballad Of Johnny Horton
3. Surf Epic

The Hang Onto Your Ego single, derived from Frank Black's first solo album, is one of the more unusual but highly necessary pieces of the Black discography. Featuring the cover of the old Beach Boys song, the remainder of the single is comprised of two instrumental songs. The lengthy "Surf Epic", lasting over ten minutes, is a wonderfully creative and, indeed, epic song that offers a little bit of the sci-fi effects that have characterized much of Frank Black's music as well as a very smooth and colorful guitar track. There is a lot of mood and good changeups within the song. "Ballad of Johnny Horton", which follows "Surf Epic" on the digipack but precedes it on the jewel case CD-5 version, is a great, short piece that has a strong amount of energy and acts as a good companion to the longer instrumental. Though often singles are throwaway wastes of plastic, this particular single is highly necessary for any fan of Frank Black as it contains a remarkable pair of songs that you won't find anywhere else.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 06/2000

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Teenager Of The Year

Frank Black - Teenager Of The Year ©1994 4AD/Elektra
1. Whatever Happened To Pong?
2. Thalassocracy
3. (I Want To Live On An) Abstract Plain
4. Calistan
5. The Vanishing Spies
6. Speedy Marie
7. Headache
8. Sir Rockaby
9. Freedom Rock
10. Two Reelers
11. Fiddle Riddle
12. Olé Mulholland
13. Fazer Eyes
14. I Could Stay Here Forever
15. The Hostess With The Mostest
16. Superabound
17. Big Red
18. Space Is Gonna Do Me Good
19. White Noise Maker
20. Pure Denizen Of The Citizens Band
21. Bad, Wicked World
22. Pie In The Sky

For a long time, Teenager of the Year stood as one of my most played and favorite albums of all time. When I first purchased it in the summer of 1994, the breadth and width of these twenty-two songs was somewhat lost on me. It was nearly six months later before I really caught onto this album and entered a state of musical addiction. For a twenty-one year old entering a very transitional state in life, the lyrics of this entire album read like a script or a soundtrack to existence. When you're at a state where you know you need to get out of your current circumstance, the words "I need a new address/I want some new terrain" from "(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain" or the sentiment of "Space is Gonna Do Me Good" are like words written in stone. Though Frank Black may have something else in mind with "Don't know if I'll ever go back/it's a long way to cross all of this black/here I am in my bucket today/in the middle" (from "Big Red"), but to me it represented my own transitional state of moving to a new place. (For the record, "Big Red" is based on Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and is actually about terraforming the red planet...go figure.)

The biggest obstacle faced in listening to Teenager is simply grasping onto the widely free-ranging music. A lot of listeners will not enjoy being challenged to go from Pixie-ish tunes like "Thalassocracy" to the slower, expressive tunes like "The Vanishing Spies". But once you get a roadmap down of where the songs go and latch onto the themes, Teenager is one of the most unbelievable albums in existence. Having listened to this album literally hundreds and hundreds of times - possibly more than anything else I own - the sequencing makes perfect sense to me. By the time you reach track sixteen, "Superabound", you have gotten to the delicious center and best part of the album.

"Superabound" is an excellent piece that challenges the notion of immortality and the ensuing boredom. When Frank tells of the sasquatch, "He said although I'm a mismatch/Could I stay just for awhile?/Cause the likes of us are few", you understand that the narrator of the song is a freak and abnormal and the sasquatch finds comfort in their shared detachment from the normal world. The next track is the aforementioned "Big Red", which has a sorta funky feel to it but also segues into a wonderful and powerful synth base during the chorus. Very moving. "Space is Gonna Do Me Good" is the catapult into a transition and soul-searching state. Following it is the slick "White Noise Maker" that explores all the needless chat and talk that people are constantly surrounded by. Frank's solution? "So I'm headed for the stereo store/To get me a white noise maker/and turn it up to ten." Next is the anthemic "Pure Denizen of the Citizen's Band", which is an ultimate driving song. "Bad Wicked World" is a straightfoward narrative of an old 60's sci-fi TV show featuring a great solo break in the middle and tons of energy. Finally, the album closes out with the wide-open blustery guitar sounds of Frank and Joey Santiago (ex-Pixies) as Frank dissects the universe and gives us a sense of perspective. Incredible finish.

Teenager of the Year has seen me wear out two dubbed copies in the car due to extensive overplay. Fortunately I have a portable CD player to avoid that now, but nonetheless this is still one of the most amazing and truly heartfelt albums I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It served as a friend and guide when I was in a lost state and today it still is refreshing.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 01/1999

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The John Peel Session W/ Teenage Fanclub

Frank Black - The John Peel Session W/ Teenage Fanclub ©1995 Strange Fruit
1. Handyman
2. The Man Who Was Too Loud
3. The Jacques Tati
4. Sister Isabel

In 1994, Frank Black found himself in England with just his acoustic guitar when he was approached by John Peel to do a session. Frank made a phone call to hook up with Teenage Fanclub and hurredly rehearsed for this quick, four song release. The results are actually quite solid and acts a bit as a forebearer for things to come for Frank Black. Two of the songs are covers: Otis Blackwell's "Handyman" and Del Shannon's "Sister Isabel". The other two are Frank Black originals. The basic, rock'n'roll sound provided by Black and Teenage Fanclub is refreshing and a bit of a return to the basic for Black after the ambitious Teenager of the Year. The cover of "Handyman" is aggressive and energetic, a complete rearrangement of the original. Of the two originals, "The Jacques Tati" is the better song, a rather jolly and carefree number about doing your own thing. "The Man Who Was Too Loud" is pretty straightforward but not necessarily one of Black's better compositions. (It would later appear on Frank Black and the Catholics.) "Sister Isabel" is somewhat noisy in the Pixies way and overall fairly catchy.

Though I feel better versions of "The Jacques Tati" and "Handyman" are to be found on the live Frank Black Session, recorded around the same time as this session, The John Peel Session is definitely a worthwhile find for fans of both Frank Black and Teenage Fanclub. The somewhat frantic nature of the session adds to an adrenaline injection into the music, thus elevating a bit above typical "b-sides" type of releases.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 10/2000

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Frank Black Session

Frank Black - Frank Black Session ©1995 4AD
1. Two Spaces
2. (I Want To Live On An) Abstract Plain
3. Headache
4. Old Black Dawning
5. Superabound
6. Calistan
7. The Vanishing Spies
8. Sir Rockaby
9. Big Red
10. The Jacques Tati
11. Oddball
12. Men In Black
13. Czar
14. Freedom Rock
15. Pong
16. White Noise Maker
17. Los Angeles
18. Handyman

Though Frank Black Session comes across as a bootleg, I believe this live recording is a European release. Nevertheless, the CD comes across as a bootleg recording as the sound is anything but polished and the packaging isn't exactly the most posh thing I've come across. But it's live Frank Black from the Teenager of the Year era so who am I to really be upset?

To a certain degree, this live disc is a hint at the future Frank Black would take with his music. Unlike Teenager, which was adventurous and fleshed out album complete with a ton of interesting electronics, the live versions of those songs strip away all the excess down to simply the skeleton structure: guitar/bass/drums/vocals. This isn't necessarily an improvement, even if you aren't a fan of synthetics. Much of the Teenager tracks and even the self-titled album material benefit from having the extra decoration. Lyle Workman fills in quite a bit of space with his left field guitar playing and the rhythm section of Nick Vincent and Eric Drew Feldman cover the bottom end quite well. Frank's vocals tend to be a bit more roughshod than the studio counterparts. On songs like "Headache", it is very apparent that he needs a few takes in the studio to capture the harder melodies and higher notes.

But all the shortcomings aside, Session provides a spirited look at the live Frank Black show. Having seen the man twice (though with the newer lineup), I can vouch his show is quite superb. This disc does contain some oddball gems: "The Jacques Tati" is a funfilled song that always puts me into a better mood. Their pumped up, rambunctious version of Otis Blackwell's "Handyman" is a great concert closer. You also get an early version of "Men in Black", which shows up in final form on The Cult of Ray. Session is most definitely for hardcore Frank Black fans such as myself but for the fan, it is a worthwhile package worth the price of admission.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 03/2000

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The Cult Of Ray

Frank Black - The Cult Of Ray ©1996 Dragnet
CD one:
1. The Marsist
2. Men In Black
3. Punk Rock City
4. You Ain't Me
5. Jesus Was Right
6. I Don't Want To Hurt You (every Single Time)
7. Mosh, Don't Pass The Guy
8. Kicked In The Taco
9. The Creature Crawling
10. The Adventure And The Resolution
11. Dance War
12. The Cult Of Ray
13. The Last Stand Of Shazeb Andleeb
CD two:
1. Village Of The Sun
2. Baby, That's Art
3. Everybody Got The Beat
4. Can I Get A Witness

After the monumental and absolutely marvelous Teenager of the Year, 1996's The Cult of Ray (the title is in honor of sci-fi author Ray Bradbury) can best be described as stripped down. Frank Black chose to discard the keyboards and synthetics of his first two solo albums for a two guitar, bass, drums and singing format that eventually morphed into the Frank Black & the Catholics lineup. In fact, only Lyle Workman was retained from the Teenager album as Frank recruited two members from Miracle Legion to provide the new rhythm section.

The Cult of Ray is definitely the first Frank Black album that actively attempted to work its way into a basic guitar rock concept that focused less on weirdness or the all-out frenzy that often made up his work in the Pixies. Instead, focus is placed on songwriting, which of course has always been Frank Black's forte. While The Cult of Ray was not nearly the seminal, incredible album of Teenager, the majority of the songs here are highly enjoyable and feature great playing by the lineup of the band. Guitarist Lyle Workman in particular adds a huge dimension with his inventive and skilled leads and solos. "Jesus Was Right" features one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, as a matter of fact.

The album contains many highlights: "The Marsist" with its freakish guitar noise, the definitive remake of "Men in Black", the touching "The Last Stand of Shazeb Andleeb" and the energy of "Dance War". The production courtesy of Frank Black himself is outstanding with every instrument having great clarity and quality. The two guitars make for great texture. One cannot accuse Frank Black of playing alongside slouches. In the end, The Cult of Ray may not be the best work in his long career either as a solo artist or in the Pixies, but it definitely is more than enjoyable

Certain import versions of the album include a four song bonus disc, which really foreshadows the stripped down format of the upcoming Frank Black & the Catholics. If you can find a copy of this import, it is definitely worth having.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 01/2001

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Frank Black And The Catholics

Frank Black - Frank Black and the Catholics ©1998 SpinArt
1. All My Ghosts
2. Back To Rome
3. Do You Feel Bad About It?
4. Dog Gone
5. I Gotta Move
6. I Need Peace
7. King & Queen Of Siam
8. Six Sixty Six
9. Solid Gold
10. Steak N Sabre
11. Suffering
12. The Man Who Was Too Loud

You can count the good tracks on this album on one hand...and that's after a workplace accident removed two of your fingers. Frank Black has simply retreated so far into "aw shucks" basic rock that everything that made him interesting is lost here. Maybe it should have been taken as a bad omen when American Records refused to release this in 1997. Though most record labels are usually concerned with profits rather than good music, they were onto something here. This is a dud. In fact, it's time Frank Black shed his stage persona and reverted to his birth name of Charles Thompson to entirely remove him from the music that made him famous.

Charles assembled the same lineup for this recording that was responsible for the very good The Cult of Ray, so you can't blame his backing members on bit. In fact, Lyle Workman is one of my favorite all-time lead guitarists, right up there with Snakefinger and Nels Cline. Rather, you can blame the approach and uninspired songwriting. The music would qualify, at best, for B-sides to the other albums. Charles decided to strip everything down to the basics: two guitars, bass, drums and singing. He also stripped away the energy, focus, good songwriting, and anything that made his Pixies and previous solo material great. But unlike the awesome Teenager of the Year (still one of my all-time favorite albums), Charles refuses to work with the songs until they are complete. Instead, it sounds as if he wrote them and recorded them twenty minutes later without even attempting to refine them. Rather it sounds like any generic alterno-band vying for a spot on the radio. This is just a wretchedly uninteresting album.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 11/1998

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Pistolero

Frank Black and the Catholics - Pistolero ©1999 SpinArt
1. Bad Harmony
2. I Switched You
3. Western Star
4. Tiny Heart
5. You're Such A Wire
6. I Love Your Brain
7. Smoke Up
8. Billy Radcliffe
9. So Hard To Make Things Out
10. 35 Weeks
11. I Think I'm Starting To Lose It
12. I Want Rock & Roll
13. Skeleton Man
14. So. Bay

After the utterly disappointing Frank Black and the Catholics, I was all set to fully write Mr. Black completely off the musical map as someone who was so caught up in streamlining and playing nothing but the basics that his better, more creative days were far behind him. Pistolero just proved me entirely wrong. Frank Black takes the same basic rock band format of two guitars, bass and drums, approaches songwriting in the same way as the last album and, over the course of fourteen songs, suggests I shut my smarmy little mouth. For whatever reason, Pistolero is a strong, rocking album from start to finish and features some of the best Frank Black compositions in years. As I stated before, the format of this music is very simple. Frank Black puts down the rhythm guitars, Rich Gilbert (replacing Lyle Workman) puts his leads over top, and Dave McCaffery and Scott Boutler hold down the bottom end with nothing but simple rock necessities. The key ingredient here is good songwriting. Fact is, Frank Black has a knack for writing memorable, timeless songs as he has shown from the early days with the Pixies and throughout most (but not all) of his solo career. Obviously last year's self-titled album is going to be an aberration, but are you perfect every day when you go to work? I know I'm not. Anyhow, "I Switched You" is a pulsing little ditty that is guaranteed to be the first song to latch itself into your head. "Billy Radcliffe", "I Love Your Brain" and "I Want Rock n Roll" are all the type of rock songs that sound good in the car at loud volume. Pistolero does much to reaffirm my faith in Frank Black's songwriting, which should go far in making everything right in the world before the millenium.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 11/1999

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Oddballs

Frank Black - Oddballs ©2000 What Are Records?
1. Pray A Little Faster
2. Oddball
3. Village Of The Sun
4. Baby, That's Art
5. At The End Of The World
6. Can I Get A Witness
7. Announcement
8. Hate Me
9. Remake/remodel
10. Everybody Got The Beat
11. Jumping Beans
12. Just A Little
13. You Never Heard About Me
14. Man Of Steel

Oddballs, as the title suggests, is a collection of various odds'n'ends lurking about Frank Black's musical closet. As one might suspect, this CD, which is only available online or at his shows, is for the very dedicated Frank Black fan. However, at this point in his career where his blip on the radar screen is well below the mainstream, anyone who is curious enough to read a Frank Black review is most likely a very dedicated fan. Thus, since those fans qualify as "dedicated", one would assume that Oddballs is either already in their collection or darned well should be.

The digipack contains a brief amount of information about the various songs collected here. Frank Black explains that this is by no means a complete collection of career B-sides, but just a handful of tunes he enjoyed. One song, "Jumping Beans", has never seen release up till now, but the rest appeared on soundtracks or European B-sides. For example, the entire bonus CD of The Cult of Ray reappears on Oddballs. The liner notes also find Black saying who he was trying to "be" on each song, citing a list ranging from Dylan to Strummer to the Rolling Stones. Despite his claims, his signature sound prevails throughout the CD. Most of the songs have that tendency to sound a little less finished and polished than album tracks, but his charming songwriting stands tall regardless. In the case of "Man of Steel", for instance, (which appeared on the X-Files soundtrack), some of these songs are among the best he's ever written.

If nothing else, Oddballs shows the side of Frank Black that was edging towards the two-track, simplified approach that he was slowly morphing towards. For fans who know about various singles of the era, this collection is nearly mandatory and even if you somehow got ahold of them, it's nice to have them on a unified collection.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 08/2002

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Dog In The Sand

Frank Black and the Catholics - Dog in the Sand ©2001 What Are Records?
1. Blast Off
2. I've Seen Your Picture
3. St. Francis Dam Disaster
4. Robert Onion
5. Stupid Me
6. Bullet
7. The Swimmer
8. Hermaphroditos
9. I'll Be Blue
10. Llano Del Rio
11. If It Takes All Night
12. Dog In The Sand

Things just keep getting better on the battlefield for Frank Black & the Catholics. Now on their third record, Dog in the Sand, Frank Black has seemingly gotten a complete understanding on the outfit's artistic perspective as well as finally acknowledging and fondly placing one foot into his early and remarkable solo career. The band is still recording to two-track, but the basic, "aw-shucks, we's just a rock band" shoddiness of the first Catholics album is far behind them. Dog in the Sand is a lush, fully realized record that rivals some of Frank Black's best work.

The band looks to the past in more ways than one. Former collaborator Eric Drew Feldman has returned to the fold to add his excellent keyboard skills, albeit mostly piano and Wurlitzer electric piano. That addition to the music helps the Catholics regain some of the lushness and more ambitious works of Teenager of the Year. There is also an overwhelming feeling that much of the music has been inspired by long trips through Americana as there is a healthy dose of pedal steel guitar and Route 66 styled memorabilia. For being recorded to two-track, there is an awful lot going with the bevy of guitars (Rich Gilbert and Dave Philips play on every track and Joey Santiago and Moris Tepper guest on several songs) and everything has perfect placement within the production. Obviously producer Nick Vincent (yet another early member of Frank Black's solo band) has a great ear for arranging all the sounds in a coherent and crystal clear setting.

Naturally the songwriting is top notch throughout, representing some of Frank Black's best songs in years. While still adhering to a fairly basic rock'n'roll guitar format, the overall feeling of Dog in the Sand is that the music is finally being fleshed out in the manner it deserves. "St. Francis Dam Disaster", "Bullet", "Blast Off" and "I've Seen Your Picture" all are among the best Black has written in quite some time. With the throwback feel of the music, there is a certain timelessness quality attained throughout. The title track is a good reworking of "Surf Epic" from the 1993 single, Hang Onto Your Ego, and is the final fond look into the past for Frank Black.

Dog in the Sand proves the old adage, "the third time's a charm", is absolutely true. This is definitely Frank Black's best effort since Teenager of the Year and has vast appeal to both his old fans and those who are craving a classic sounding, timeless rock album.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 01/2001

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Devil's Workshop

Frank Black and the Catholics - Devil's Workshop ©2002 SpinArt
1. Velvety
2. Out Of State
3. His Kingly Cave
4. San Antonio, TX
5. Bartholomew
6. Modern Age
7. Are You Headed My Way?
8. Heloise
9. The Scene
10. Whiskey In Your Shoes
11. Fields Of Marigold

In an age of technology where ProTools, digital recording and computers dominate the music industry, Frank Black and his band of Catholics stand completely apart in their approach to making music. Forget thirty-two track studios, months of overdubbing and careful manipulation of sound while seated in front of a Mac. Skip the formulated, meticulous approach used by nearly every band you hear on the radio. It is more than evident that Frank Black exists in a completely different time frame than everyone else around him. Devil's Workshop and its companion disc, Black Letter Days, were recorded not only to two-track tape (a staple approach to recording that Frank Black has been using since the self-titled Catholics album in 1998), but often in mono. Perhaps Mr. Black has something against today's high end speaker systems and surround sound contraptions. This is music meant to be played on AM radios in old cars driving down forgotten two lane highways across America.

As demonstrated on 2001's excellent Dog in the Sand, the current Frank Black sound has a timeless Americana truckstop sound mixed with a little Neil Young for good measure. Black seemingly has listened to nothing but classic music from a time before most of his fans were even born and both this and Black Letter Days are full of the influence. The core quartet of the Catholics are again joined by a variety of friends, including Joey Santiago, Eric Drew Feldman and the incomparable Lyle Workman. The ten songs, while dwelling more in the country-rock field than ever before, are uniformly quite good and catchy. Longtime fans of Black's career will rejoice at the resurrection of "Velvety", an old Pixies B-side now complete with lyrics. The general mood of the album, as said above, captures the feeling of driving across the country while listening to nothing but AM radio classics. In an age of trends and prefabricated souless rock music, this is a more than welcome and strangely novel approach to making rock'n'roll. Suffice it to say, Devil's Workshop should be considerably more timeless than anything that is on 2002's chart topper list.

Despite the occasional trips through mono territory, Devil's Workshop is a warm, vibrant rock experience. Frank Black's songwriting, as always, is superb and this release, along with its companion, proves beyond a doubt that Black is not only prolific, but one of rock's few songwriting geniuses. Devil's Workshop is holistic medicine for those sick of technology replacing human warmth in music.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 09/2002

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Black Letter Days

Frank Black and the Catholics - Black Letter Days ©2002 SpinArt
1. The Black Rider
2. California Bound
3. Chip Away Boy
4. Cold Heart Of Stone
5. Black Letter Day
6. Valentine And Garuda
7. How You Went So Far
8. End Of Miles
9. 1826
10. The Farewell Bend
11. Southbound Boy
12. I Will Run After You
13. True Blue
14. Jane The Queen Of Love
15. Jet Black River
16. 21 Reasons
17. Whispering Weeds
18. The Black Rider

As the other half of the double release for Frank Black and the Catholics, Black Letter Days finds the Catholics (with adjunct members such as Nick Vincent and Morris Tepper) wandering through a collage of eighteen wildly ranging songs. Along with the companion disc Devil's Workshop, the music sticks to a stripped down, rootsy rock vibe that completely exists outside the current musical and technological climate. And thank goodness for that.

Compared to Devil's Workshop, a fairly rollicking, bouncy album, Black Letter Days finds Frank Black in brood mode quite often, offering his most introspective songs yet. There are, of course, odes to travel and the road, a recurring theme lately, but there are also acoustic ballads (ballads of the oldtime, classic sense and not those goofy power ballads one might have seen Poison attempting in the late 80s). The band often gets to rev things up, getting into that mighty jam mode seen on Dog in the Sand, but has their counterparts with the acoustic, minimalistic numbers. The Americana, truckstop vibe still shows up from time to time with Dave Philips' steel guitar licks, and sometimes one might think Neil Young has been getting a little more play on the cassette deck in the band's touring van. The production, as per usual, is warm and rich, despite the supposed limitations of two-track recording in a digital era. Somewhere, a ProTools representative is tossing and turning in his bed.

Between the two discs Frank Black and the Catholics have released this year, Black Letter Days has been a bit less immediate than Devil's Workshop, so it has taken longer to immerse myself in. However, it is a great soundtrack to the ups and downs of one's life and the ride through the various musical moods mirrors that. Frank Black may officially be completely outside the loop now, but for those who are following his path, it's a great journey.

Review by John Chedsey

Review date: 10/2002

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