Box Set Review: Black Francis – 07-11

What’s that smell? A glorious magazine page ink factory aroma. All thick and heady on glossy leaves housed in a solid book style binding that, despite containing CD’s, fits snugly in amongst the LP’s, where it oozes the class of an arthouse coffee table book… and I haven’t even opened it yet! Housed within its inky confines is a 40 page booklet and 9 CDs which span the career of Frank Black’s post-Pixies output between 2007 and 2011, when he felt free to write and record a slew of albums under the banner of a theme or concept, from 2007’s Bluefinger, which concerned itself with the life and work of Herman Brood, the Dutch pop star, hedonist and drug addict who threw himself off the Amsterdam Hilton, to his amethyst inspired Nashville collaboration with Reid Paley in 2011, making six studio albums plus a couple of stripped back live shows and a whole host of  b-sides and whatnots making up the other 3 discs in this near perfect package.

The booklet contains a detailed write up from the man himself about the material, and makes for fascinating reading, as he catalogues his reasoning and states of mind at various times around these recordings, for example the story of driving around writing the songs for NonStopErotik on a Telecaster guitar that was left for him at the Hotel Utah, to recording in the same Nashville room where Willie Nelson wrote “Hello Walls”. It’s those little insights which can bring the magic to the fore, and what we have here is a document of the alchemical process by which something far greater than the sum of its parts is given life, as he travels between dimensions and times, fluttering moth-like through the dying flames of history with a vintage zippo lighter and enough buzzing amplification to blow the stories into our eyes and ears, trailing the spirits of half forgotten tales of addiction, worship and mysticism in his wake, and leaving behind burnt out curls of tin foil littering the carpets of a thousand motel rooms.

Starting with Bluefinger, the vinyl re-issue of which has been reviewed in these pages already, so let’s keep this brief. Herman Brood was a big star in Holland for a while in the 70’s/80’s, like a Dutch punk Elvis if you like, who threw himself off the Amsterdam Hilton (famous for Lennon and Yoko having a bit of a lie down for peace back in 1969), leaving behind him a trail of junkies, doomed relationships, and legends which Black Francis soaked up like trails of smoke before vomiting up these tight/taut stabs of rock and roll on to a sticky carpet, capturing an essence of sleaze and tragedy that perfectly reflected a life lived in the fast lane. Stand out tracks include “Threshold Apprehension” and the epic “Angels Come To Comfort You”.

Svn Fngrs (2008) is short but incredibly sweet, and concerns itself with capturing the essence of worship going back to way before God came on the scene, right up to robot fetish and the good old sticks and wood of guitars. The Beefheart strains of “The Seus”, (which concerns itself with Greek mythology and it’s obsessions with fatherly approval and shagging!) set up a fine collection of songs which rival that of the best Pixies tunes. The track fizzles its way into “Garbage Heap” which would have been a massive hit if people had more taste for a classic, there is a passionate love and devotion that defies the ages, ‘on the garbage heap at the edge of town’, perhaps the soul of Mary Magdalene pining for her lover to fall from above and once again dance like ‘the night there in Jerusalem’. “Half Man” is a song about the atom bomb, sounding similar to “Getting Closer” by Wings from their “Back To The Egg” album, and delivered in a voice not unlike David Thomas of Pere Ubu, and “I Sent Away” (mail order frenzy) sounds a lot like The Hives. The title song and “When They Come To Murder Me” (the chorus of which sounds a bit like early song “Headache”) are written from the point of view of Irish mythological demi-God Cúchulainn, who was born with ‘seven fingers and seven toes’, and are in turns a fairly average country shuffle, and an awesome slice of classic Pixies/Black Francis.

Next up is his paen to sex with NonStopErotik, an album he wrote while driving through the California hills, on a Fender Telecaster that was gifted to him. The talents of the incredibly gifted Eric Drew Feldman (Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, Frank Black) really elevate this record with some open production and little keyboard colour palette dabs, from the otherworldly strings on “O My Tidy Sum” to the plonking piano on “Wild Son” and “When I Go Down On You”. The opener “Lake Of Sin” really comes on like Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand” before it shifts down a few gears into  gorgeously thick black treacle water, into which he dives ‘just like the clean worm into the lake of sin’, turning the catharsis into a religion, similar in fact to Greg Dulli’s moaning pleasures on Afghan Whig’s 1965 album. Was it intentional I wonder that the title track sounds like a cheesy hotel lobby version of “Knocking On Heavens Door”, with a guitar solo that sounds like someone practising the main refrain from Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”? Probably – it certainly fits in with the lyric’s overall cheesiness. He even starts with the line ‘pardon my cliche’! This version contains the extra tracks only previously available on the Japanese release.

The Golem was written in 2008 to accompany the German expressionist silent film from 1920 portraying a figure made out of clay from Jewish folklore, and once again featuring the talents of Eric Drew Feldman and a cast of musicians adding screaming James Chance style sax (“Maskanujo” & “You’re Gonna Pay”), and surreal mellotron and pedal steel guitar (“Bad News”), and the double electric guitar assault on the Springsteen-like “The Maharal”. Not sure how it played as a soundtrack but it makes a great addition to his canon of solo works.

Paley & Francis was written and recorded in a matter of days in Nashville in 2010 and features the Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham on piano. This isn’t his first collaboration with Reid Paley. They have worked together over a number of years and Frank Black produced his first solo album in 1999. I’m not a fan of his smoky bar-room baritone but together they have cooked up a decent and listenable bunch of songs here.

Abbabubba is a collection of b-sides, re-mixes and re-workings of album songs originally issued in 2011 and containing songs written for various projects during the period. It is notable for containing 3 different remixes of “The Seus” from Svn Fngrs, including mixes by Bloc Party and Infadels, which take a techno turn, and Charles Normal, who treads a deliciously fine line between the original version and his own, perhaps in part due to the fact that he has been playing as a member of Black’s touring band since 2007.

I have reviewed the double Live At The Hotel Utah Saloon elsewhere on this site so I’ll not dwell, although my original review perhaps didn’t favour it as much as it should have, because with repeated listens, it develops organically like a fine wine. It’s the intimacy of one man and his guitar presenting a clutch of career spanning classics with warmth and familiarity.

Live In Nijmegen is a different kettle of fish. This is Black Francis doing what he does best. A tight power trio delivering a blistering set from the 2008 Bluefinger/Svn Fngrs tour, complete with various covers from trad folk song “All Around The World”, to Gary Green’s “That Burnt Out Rock And Roll”, which closes the set, both delivered with terrifying intensity. He mostly concentrates on this 07-11 period, and don’t expect any songs from his previous band here, because, like the man himself says, ‘no we’re not going to play the fucking goddamn Pixies that’s for sure’, before blasting into the whole of the Bluefinger album.

If you’re not familiar with this period of his creative solo works then here is a chance to invest in a rich catalogue of highly inventive and wildly edgy music. If you’re still waiting for a better Pixies product then forget it and get on board – it’s already here. Black Francis is back baby, and it smells so good.

 07-11 is out now on Edsel – order the boxset here

Find out more on Fan Site

Review by Andrew Wood

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