The artist formerly known as Black Francis will be making a stop in Madison tonight. The behemoth of talent who once led the astronomically influential Pixies is back to being Frank Black: solo artist. With the gimmicky Pixies reunion tour behind him, Black can now journey cross-country in support of his two latest albums, 2005's Honeycomb and this year's Fast Man Raider Man.
How fitting that he should be playing a club called the High Noon Saloon tonight. Black's last two albums have all but solidified the singer's transformation into Americana country pop. If you listen closely, you can even hear Black putting on a bit of a southern accent. It's not the Bostonian's fault; it comes with the genre.
However, he didn't get by without a little help from his friends. FMRM boasts contributions from a slew of legendary and legendary-by-association musicians. To catalogue the cream of the crop: The Band's Levon Helm, Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick, blues-rock veteran Al Kooper, drummer Steve Ferrone of the Heartbreakers, authentic redneck rocker Marty Brown, West Coast soul innovator P.F. Sloan, and Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke. Also pitching in were Reggie Young, Steve Cropper, Buddy Miller, Chester Thompson and Spooner Oldman who had previously helped out on Honeycomb as well.
The 27-song double-disc album is, indeed, a success. It appears that Mr. Black has about as much soul as he does body mass. The more up-beat jams like opener "If Your Poison Gets You" have feel-good, clap-along choruses, while the slower, more melancholy ballads like the half-title track "Fast Man" straddle the barrier of lighter-waving music.
Black's mastery of neo-country Americana makes his body of work with the Pixies even more impressive. By no means do the Pixies need any more praise than they're already given, but Black's conscious new sound proves his Pixies ingenuity wasn't just a fluke. He really did know what he was doing after all.
But since the Pixies, Black has become a much more conservative songwriter. With the Pixies (and even some stuff with the Catholics) you never knew what type of song you were in store for next — a grungy, menacing ballad or a screeching, illegible bit of art-pop. Contrarily, almost every color FMRM has to offer is revealed by the second or third track.
However, there is a rare Pixies throwback on disc two. In "Sad Old World," Black uses his speaking voice to stoically recite the line, "Hello. No I mean you," vis-�-vis "La La Love You" and "All Over the World." (I'm getting nostalgic just writing their titles.)
But make no mistake: FMRM is no White Album. There's very little attention paid to the art of the album, which double albums usually call for. Rather, FMRM just sounds like a medley of a bunch of really good songs, in no particular order (the exception being the placement of "Fare Thee Well" as the closing track). In that vein, FMRM has no clear agenda other than to say, "Look at how many really good songs I can write." But is that necessarily a bad thing? It certainly works well for the age of single-song downloading and 99-cent songs on iTunes.
Sure, you can give FMRM the obvious double-album criticism, that if Black were to have weeded out the average-quality songs, he could have released a great single album as opposed to a good double album. But really, there are no blatant skippers. The record just needs to be taken in doses. Plus, every great band or songwriter needs to release a double album at some point in his or her career.
Even though Black is only 41, his seminal work with the Pixies feels ancient enough to tack years onto his reputation. In that sense, he's nearing the stage of veteran-rock, in which fans see you just to say they've seen the legend in person, without really caring what your new record sounds like or that you even have one. Black's not quite there yet, and the caliber of Fast Man Raider Man is good enough to warrant a crowd without the honorary Pixies association.
Having seen one of the recent Pixies revival shows, I can testify that Black's stage antics are less than thrilling. No, there will be no jumping off of amps or swinging guitars around backs for this mammoth rocker — Black's lucky he can still see his guitar over his stomach. However, come to tonight's show at the High Noon Saloon to feel the soul of an Al Green sermon and the good old-fashioned sound of American music done by one of the great songwriters of our generation.
Frank Black and special guests Reid Paley Trio will perform at the High Noon Saloon, 701 E. Washington Ave. The show starts at 9 p.m., $25 cover.