The new Black Francis (aka Frank Black) album, Bluefinger, is a strong album, maybe the strongest Black Francis album in thirteen years. It's also the first Black Francis album in thirteen years, kind of. Black Francis claims the album is inspired by the work and life of Herman Brood. These three sentences beg three questions. The first is: who is Herman Brood?
Readers in the Netherlands will be more familiar with Brood and his work than Americans will. A keyboard player who made his start with mid-'60s Dutch group Cuby and the Blizzards, Brood later became notorious for his drug use, and his chart performance suffered, to the degree that he briefly gave up music in the early 1990s. He spent the balance of the '90s issuing a few records and creating art, before ultimately leaping to his death in 2001. Brood's artwork lends names to several tracks on Bluefinger, including "Test Pilot Blues" and "Threshold Apprehension," and "You Can't Break a Heart and Have It" is a Brood cover.
This leaves the remaining two questions: Who is Black Francis? And where has he been all these years?
The first of these questions seems fatuous, the second coy. Even the 21-year-old hipster who was still eating strained peas and filling diapers in 1987 when the Pixies released Come On Pilgrim knows that Black Francis was the frontman, resident UFOlogist, and tortured lead screamer for this most pivotal underground band that almost made it mainstream — opened for U2 during the Achtung Baby tour, for Chrissakes — before he broke the band up by fax.
And Black Francis hasn't gone anywhere, despite the fact that there have been no releases on which that nom de plume played from 1991's Trompe Le Monde to 2004's "Bam Thwok." That selfsame callow hipster knows that Black Francis became Frank Black when he went solo in 1993, and released a series of solid, if workmanlike, releases between the debut s/t and 2006's Fast Man/Raider Man.
So much for the history. The questions remain: where has Black Francis been in Frank Black's solo work for thirteen to fifteen long years? And who is Black Francis, as opposed to Frank Black, anyway? And, most pertinent to Tuesday's full-length release Bluefinger, why is this the first release of Frank Black's career to be credited to Black Francis? These are all related questions with one at their core: what is the Black Francis sound?