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Black Francis - '07-11' 9 CD Album Review

This expansive new boxset features 129 tracks across nine CDs including five studio albums – ‘Bluefinger’ (2007), ‘Sv n F ng rs’ (2008), ‘The Golem’ (2010), ‘NonStopErotik’ (2010), and ‘Paley and Francis’ (2011). Plus, ‘Abbabubba’, a collection of B-sides, rarities and remixes, as well as two live albums ‘Live In Nijmegen’ and ‘Live At The Hotel Utah Saloon’ (which is released on CD for the very first time.)

You could probably say that Black Francis (also known as Frank Black or Charles Thompson IV to his family) is probably responsible for the sound of grunge than anyone else.

As frontman and chief noisemaker for legendary band The Pixies he helped carve a sonic template that bands would steal for years (Kurt Cobain openly admitted to using the blueprint they provided for Nirvana). Without them the musical landscape of the nineties would be drastically different. Even after the first implosion of his band Francis set about carving himself a solo career. It may not have been as incendiary but it’s still something that’s worth celebrating.

“07-11” celebrates an incredibly prolific period for him, the collection itself covering five studio albums, a collection of odds and ends and two live albums, all drawn from 2007-2011. The nine cd’s are housed in a rather nice hardback book containing new artwork as well as an introduction and new album liner notes by the man himself, and all 129 tracks have been freshly remastered by Phil Kinrade.

‘Captain Pasty’ opens the collection (and first album here “Bluefinger”) and you can immediately tell it’s him. The album is based on the life of Dutch artist and musician Herman Brood (‘You Can’t Break a Heart and Have It’ on the album is actually a cover of one of his songs) and it’s exactly what you would expect from Francis. Despite its rough and ready sounds “Bluefinger” is catchy as hell. The bass thunks away percussively while guitars slash away the melody. Francis’ vocals are part sang, part howled, part yelled. He’s often imitated (yes, we’re looking at you again Mr Cobain) but never bettered. There’s a good energy and groove all the way through here. You could swear that you are in the room with him and the band as the play.

Mini album “Sv n F ng rs” is up next. The title draws from Irish and Celtic mythology; the character Cú Chulainn is said to have seven fingers and seven toes. The blueprint remains the same musically here with several of the songs feeling considerably shorter than usual (only three of the seven songs last over four minutes). Drawing from the story of Cú Chulainn, the songs ‘Seven Fingers’ and ‘When They Come To Murder Me’ present lyrics from his point of view (there’s a reference to turning into a monster when he fights, because of a “warp spasm” or battle frenzy).

“NonStopErotik” is next and is his last Black Francis solo album before reconvening The Pixies back in the studio for recording. It adds a few different things into the mix with loops and the like appearing here and there as Francis is experimenting a little more before settling back into his day job. He’s also one of those artists that needs to sound a little abrasive rather than being drenched in studio polish, and “NonStopErotik” walks the balance between the two. There’s fuzzy guitars and basses to the max while keys and piano cut through to provide melody (at times he manages to swing from sounding like The Doors to vintage Bowie). The you have songs like ‘Lost Mi Love’ that encapsulates the chaos in his head by almost sounding dub-like in places before turning up the guitars in the chorus. Throw in some strings stolen from under the nose of Phil Spector on some songs and your brain is left spinning from what you’ve just listened to.

"The Golem" is something a little different from the musician. It’s a project to provide a soundtrack to the film “The Golem: How He Came Into The World” which was originally released in 1920. The soundtrack was performed live in 2008 as part of the Sam Francisco International Film Festival. The film is considered a classic of early silent cinema and German expressionism so it feels quite natural for Black Francis to provide a soundtrack for it (‘Debaser’ by The Pixies references “Un Chien Andalou” the surrealist film classic by Salvador Dali and Luis Brunuel). As you may expect, the soundtrack isn't your usual instrumental only affair. The overall feel of it is slightly different to that of a usual album by him. Musically, it feels more restrained, and, with the addition of horns, the sonic palette is slightly different too.

"Paley & Francis" is a ten track collaboration with Reid Paley backed by some Nashville alumni. Here they manage to turn a mixed bag from both artists into something more cohesive. Parley sounds like Tom Waits, especially on the tracks he provides lead vocals for (the even numbered tracks on the album are his, Francis handles vocals on the odd numbered ones). Musically the two draw heavily from Americana but infuse it with a Garage Rock band’s approach. The backing is perfect for them to pull this off and probably comes across as my highlight of the collection.

"Abbadubba" collects various bonus tracks from various sources, including three remixes (all of ‘The Seus’ from “Sv n F ng rs”). You would generally expect something like this to lack the quality of writing and performance of the main albums but you’ll be surprised. The title track fits in nicely with anything that he’s done before and the rest of the songs follow along that path. There’s a rough edge to the songs but that doesn’t mean they’re not polished (only ‘Dead Man’s Curve’, ‘The Water’, ‘Do What You Want (Gyaneshwar)’ and ‘Get Away Oil’ sound like rougher one-take demos).

The first of the two live albums is "Live At The Hotel Utah Saloon", a two cd affair. Recorded on October 19th 2007, the 29 song set covers his entire career up that point, including tracks from The Pixies, Frank Black and Black Francis too. His solo gig here is quite loose, almost spontaneous especially when you compare it to "Live In Nijmegen" which is taken from a show on February 28th 2008. The show sees Black Francis preforming as a trio backed by Dan Schmid and Jason Carter on bass and drums respectively (they'd both played on "Bluefinger" with Carter appearing on a few other appearances later) and he completely eschews his Pixies legacy. It comes across as tighter than the other live release.

“07-11” is a great way to introduce yourself to an incredibly prolific artist. When you consider this is just a snapshot of only four years you're absolutely blown away. Most artists can’t deliver anything like this across an entire career, never mind the fact that Francis has been playing and recording for some thirty five years. It makes you think what other treats he has hidden away from other periods of his career. Long may he continue.

Review - Scott Hamilton


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