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Black Magic


Rock bands get off on the past. They're living in the same head space as their influences -- just rearranging the furniture. The Pixies threw the furniture out the window (after redesigning it -- arty punks, you know). Then they built their own.

It was as if three Venusians and a Martian had been locked in a room and forced to write a pop song without the benefit of ever having heard one. So, naturally, they broke the rules, of which they were blissfully unaware. Thus the Pixies used musical graininess for artistic clarity, art noise as sonic sugar. Songs went through zippy subpatterns that ranged from caressing to grating to catchy. Jarring chord shifts, ricocheting vocal chants and cubist (re)arrangements demonstrated how the Pixies worked from impressionism on down instead of painting songs from memory. What you heard first was the art on top, and, like a dreamy vortex, it pulled you in -- it was a hook in itself.

If anything, the Pixies proved you can get an emotional reaction from music that's honest yet nonconfessional. They used art as a placebo for emotion, but the effect was the same. And genuine. Their evolving, revolving sound, perfected on 1989's Doolittle, was a tangled tease of chameleonesque song forms, punk moodiness and sudden tics of rage and distortion. It was solid art-punk of a different stripe. Unlike P.I.L. or Magazine, who put their concepts ahead of rockin' out, or R.E.M., who've succumbed to idea cancer, the Pixies were a burst of slithery, biting energy. There was the minimalistic grayness of (fellow Ohioans) Pere Ubu in their approach, but the music thrived on strokes of melodic color.

A song like "Here Comes Your Man" -- atypical Pixies -- cheered with an authentic British Invasion jangle, whereas other outbursts had a rage that forecast Nirvana, or bathed themselves in a girly elan that evoked Blondie on a dark trip.

"The Pixies was my first band," says Frank Black, then known as Black Francis. He looks back at the (almost) overnight (near) success of the band with a blend of humility and, well, frankness.

"It was certainly exciting to be successful," Black admits, "but I had nothing to compare it against. It wasn't like I was slugging it out in the clubs for five years. It was like, 'I'm gonna start a band. OK, you're hot in Holland -- go!' It wasn't like, 'Oh, I finally made it.' Now I realize that it isn't like that for most people, and even then I probably realized that, but, you know, I was only 19 or 20 years old. So I don't think I understood what a long shot it was."

Black is reported to have called Frank Black and the Catholics -- his third release, newly available in the States on CD and LP, alongside his latest album, Pistolero -- "the greatest recording I ever made." It sounds like an album from the pre-electronica, post-synth-pop days, when neuro-poets like the revitalized Feelies made the sound of a strummed guitar feel like a breeze all over again. At heart, the tightly wound album has more in common with T. Rex than with Yo La Tengo. Along with his agnostic sense of guitar worship, Black turns his David Byrne-ing vocals into an asset that lures you into his maze of lost-my-mind power-pop minimalism. And it has a rawer feel than his earlier works. "Absolutely," Black agrees. "Especially because of the way we recorded it. We're in that kind of a mood right now, I suppose."

Black is prone to making distinctions. For instance, he shrugs off the suggestion that riffs just might be his secret weapon. "I don't know if they're so important to me," says Black. "They're important to rock music, and so it just comes out that way. I don't know that I ever think about it, really. But you're the second guy who's mentioned riffs." He seems to appreciate it. Black does his own thing, as they used to say.

A survivor of alt-rock's ever-sinking Titanic, he may just get the last splash. But is he totally alone these days? You'd think there'd be a kindred spirit or two. "Well, when you say kindred spirit," Black says, then pauses for a few seconds, and finally decides to put it this way: "I know other people that are musicians, and I guess they're my kindred spirits. I don't know who fits into what -- what kind of category -- but sometimes it's not even about music so much. I know people -- musicians -- and maybe I don't even like their music that much. But I get along with them, and it's not really about whether or not we're on the same page." Many groups, Black would agree, aren't even in the same book -- or, for that matter, the same library. "Well, without sounding too critical of anyone in particular," he says, "there are a lot of shitty bands. But, you know, there always have been."

One thing that keeps this brash modernist refreshingly old-school, though, is his love of the Beatles. Black weighs in with his vote as to whether the Beatles were the greatest band ever. "I think they are," he says with no hesitation. "I'm prejudiced because they're the first band I ever really got into as a little kid. I didn't even get into them until after they'd broken up, because I'm 34 years old. If we had to send a band from Earth to sort of represent the rock bands -- well, I don't even think they'd be the best choice; I think the Ramones would be a good choice, too -- but if you were really going to be representative and democratic about it and pick the band that everybody knows about, then they're the ones. What's so satisfying about them isn't just that everybody knows about them -- they're totally for the masses, and they're good!"

Black probably realizes that this says more about the music industry these days than any bitter indictment of your typical Matchbox 20-something. A victim of the usual major-label mishandling, he's not looking for the sort of overnight success that just as quickly leads to overnight failure. Black wants to make it because he's good -- not his publicist. And he seems happy to have landed on an indie label, Spin Art (with a good publicist, no less).

"They do a pretty good job for three guys and a gal in an office in New York City," he says with a gruff but genuine affection. Black doesn't have the adversarial relationship with the record industry you might expect from an arty punk. "I just do what I do," he offers. " You get what you get -- you know what I mean? You try hard and enjoy it."

-- Jordan Oakes