This month sees the release of the latest offering from ex-Pixies frontman Black Francis, otherwise known as Frank Black or even plain old Charles Thompson. Petits Fours (Cooking Vinyl, 2009) will be released under the sobriquet Grand Duchy and sees him teaming up with his wife, Violet Clark.
The publicity material that arrived with the album whets the appetite. Black Francis reveals, "She (Violet) was innocent. I hadn't felt innocent for years. She digs the 80's. I had spent the latter part of the 80's doing my part to destroy it." He continues by confessing that, "our second recording session involved a fair amount of shouting and throwing things."
The pair bought a house in the Grand Duchy Of Luxembourg. The band name was born and a meeting of musical styles developed which in part echoed the very nature of Luxembourg itself. In many ways the small but nicely formed country is neither here nor there and finds itself positioned very much at the crossroads of Europe.
Black Francis was, up until their split in 1993, part of legendary US alt-rock band The Pixies. Their influence was huge and their many fans and admirers included none other than Kurt Cobain, who is on record as saying, "When I heard The Pixies for the first time I connected with them so heavily, I should have been in that band, or at least in a Pixies cover band. We (Nirvana) used their sense of dynamics, being soft and quiet and then loud and hard."
This legacy remains as strong today and their four albums — Surfer Rosa, Doolittle, Bossanova, and Trompe Le Monds, released between 1988 and 1991 — are often cited among the most influential records of their time. There was a brief reunion in 2004.
When The Pixies originally split up, he embarked on a solo career as Frank Black. His lyrics often continued to explore some recurring themes such as incest, violence, and religion. His eponymous solo debut album arrived in March 1993. The following year saw a double album entitled Teenager Of The Year, which included one of his best known solo tracks, “Headache.”
The formation of Frank Black And The Catholics heralded the arrival of a debut self titled album released in 1997. Arguably, though, the highlight of this venture came with 2001’s Dog In The Sand. Subsequent to that and the brief Pixies reunion, he has collaborated with a Nashville collective to release Honeycomb.
In 2007 as Black Francis he released Bluefinger, an album inspired by the work of Herman Brood a Dutch artist and musician. His next venture saw him delve into Irish folk myth with Svn Fngrs, released in 2008.
This all-too-brief account barely scratches the surface of the career of this extraordinary musician. It goes without saying that there was a lot of interest and anticipation when he announced that he was to starting another new venture, Grand Duchy, this time alongside Violet.
Musically the album is both varied and eccentric. Violet’s vocals hit a high on “Seeing Stars” whilst Frank’s own are never better than on the album’s grinding, sleazy opener “Come On Over To My House”.
“Lovesick” introduces Violet in a sudden switch of style, which veers off partially into a vague reminder of the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar” riff. “Fort Wayne” turns in the direction of surfing Beach Boys, an area explored by The Pixies of old.
By the time “Seeing Stars” arrives, you realize that this album is a diverse mix that will please and confuse in equal measure.
“Black Suit” revisits something of The Pixies with a richly possessed vocal delivery from Black Francis. The heavy 80’s synth styling disguises a dark “The Long Song” which performs another total U-turn and has Violet taking the lead.
Meanwhile, “Break The Angels” and “Ermesinde” are both in danger of pushing the electro pop synth style a little too far. By the time “Volcano” enters the fray to end the album, I am more than a little confused.
Like many marriages, there are some very special moments but these are often balanced by times where you are unable to agree on anything. There are, however, brief flashes of The Pixies with Violet even managing to sound vaguely and briefly like Kim Deal in a couple of places.
His recent increasingly eccentric output has taken in many often unanticipated twists and turns. This is most definitely the case with Petits Fours. As if to deliberately confuse, they explore areas described on their Myspace page as a "path less trodden." All in all, I’m not entirely sure it works.