Frank Black & The Catholics - The Complete Studio Albums (Demon Records)

Frank Black & The Catholics – The Complete Studio Albums (Demon Records)

The key to properly enjoying records by Frank Black & The Catholics is to lock all your old Pixies albums in a secure space in your brain. Maybe even throw away the key. Otherwise it’s just too easy to think “it’s no Doolittle, is it?” when the truth is, the two bands should be treated as two completely separate entities.

Once those preconceptions have been pushed aside, the melodies on these terrific albums can really start to take a hold on you. The first, self titled record, released way back in 1998, is surely a set to rival any band or musician of the day.

Beginning with some studio tomfoolery, the album is soon led in by some frantic guitar work, into the group’s debut single ‘All My Ghosts‘ which really gets under your skin (in a good way) after a few plays, but ‘Back To Rome‘, which follows, is even better. The opening musical gambit is not dissimilar to a segment of the Wings classic ‘Band On The Run‘ but then turns into something that rather delightfully resembles The Replacements.

There are quite a few nods back to that kind of cult classic songwriter feel on Frank Black & The Catholics, as the catchy ‘Do You Feel Bad About It?‘ demonstrates before the moody and masterful slow burner ‘Dog Gone‘ (“And the point, if there is one, well, sir, that’s to carry me on” is simply a line worthy of applause) further cements how strong and astute a songwriter one Charles Thompson IV undoubtedly is.

I Gotta Move‘ is like early Dire Straits having an open mic session with Dinosaur Jr and Black’s voice is revealed to have hidden dimensions on side one’s curtain closer ‘I Need Peace‘.

Side two opens with the haunting ‘King & Queen Of Siam‘ and is arguably the highlight of the album, Francis playfully switching between falsetto and strained vocal that somehow gives proceedings a very ‘real’ air about them. The ‘rockabilly Dylan‘ style ‘Six-Sixty-Six‘ is next, more throwaway but still infinitely listenable and undoubtedly the most ‘fun’ track here. Then ‘Solid Gold‘, ‘Steak ‘N’ Sabre‘ and ‘Suffering‘ are a trio of songs that probably reflect the ‘straight to 2-track’ method in which the record was recorded, and then we end with ‘The Man Who Was Too Loud‘, which I always thought was an odd choice to close out the album. A decent song but somewhat meandering, it’s far from the best track. But hey, nobody’s perfect.

Pistolero came next, in 1999, with Black going all Bob Mould on us for ‘Bad Harmony‘ and then forcing us into flared trousers and platform boots for the glam-rock infused ‘I Switched You‘, which almost feels like it’s going to deteriorate into a heavy metal version of ‘Tiger Feet‘ at one point. It’s glorious. One of the pinnacles of this particular band’s career.

A reprieve comes in the form of slightly fucked up ballad ‘Western Star’ which unexpectedly contains shades of Van Morrison, followed by the foot tapping rock of ‘Tiny Heart‘ and its memorable refrain. ‘You’re Such A Wire’ is a delicately beautiful song that again conjures thoughts of the aforementioned Ulsterman, and perhaps even Bob Dylan too.

Much of the rest of Pistolero is purely a ‘rock’ album, though it’s often when the band take a diversion from this, that they deliver the best results – ‘Billy Radcliffe‘, the first track on side two, is kind of like a b-side by The Jam and tremendous fun as a result. And the vocal rhythms of the mellow, low-key ‘85 Weeks‘ are sincerely arresting. But then by contrast, the relentless ‘I Want Rock & Roll‘ is what Frank Black and The Catholics do best so it’s hard to fault whichever path they go down. Pistolero definitely stands up as arguably their strongest album, at least in my book anyway.

2001’s Dog In The Sand then, was an ostensibly surprising u-turn. ‘Blast Off’ introduced a more melodic, almost funky sound to proceedings, and the stripped down, slow burning tread of ‘I’ve Seen Your Picture‘ left us in no doubt that this was destined to be a real songwriter’s album. The best example of this is the gorgeous steel guitar led ‘St. Francis Dam Disaster‘, impeccably expressed by the great man and oh that piano! It’s a thing of beauty, as, indeed, is this 6 disc clear vinyl boxset, complete with lavish, colourful, informative booklet, covering the six albums released by the band between 1998-2003, which is some turnaround!

As the aforementioned booklet notes, Dog In The Sandexpanded The Catholics’ sound beyond the four-piece rock band, introducing a more collective approach to recording that would be utilized on the Catholics records which would follow.” And if you’re any doubt about that, just take a listen to the irresistible ’50s ballad meets Motown’ sway of ‘Stupid Me‘.

Astonishingly, both Black Letter Days and Devil’s Workshop were released on the same day in 2002. This wasn’t just a ramshackle ‘throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’ kind of episode either – each of the two records was finely crafted and thoughtfully put together and, although Black Letter Days was clearly meant to be the ‘main’ release of the two, the fact is that the much shorter Devil’s Workshop just seems to flow better.

That’s not to say Black Letter Days isn’t a good album. It is, but it feels just a tad disjointed. For example it starts with an explosive cover of the Tom Waits song ‘The Black Rider‘ which, while superbly pulled off, seems oddly out of place, with no apparent relevance to the rest of the record whatsoever.

After that it all goes a bit country on us. No bad thing that. It’s a genre that The Catholics pull off very well, as ‘California Bound‘ and the ‘Don’t Go Back To Rockville‘ era R.E.M. of ‘Chip Away Boy‘ perfectly demonstrate. Much of Black Letter Days relies on this kind of sound, though the (near) title track is driving, intense and urgent.

It’s when the band try their hand at early seventies heavy rock that they particularly impress, so ‘1826‘ certainly stakes a claim for being the album’s standout track. Most of the rest of it is made up by easily palatable Americana, like the jaunty ‘Jet Black River‘, although ‘Whispering Weeds‘ is a pleasing diversion from the norm, appearing to have used Talking HeadsNaked album as its template.

Devil’s Workshop, by contrast, is a more traditional rock album, starting with the Stones-like ‘Velvety‘ like Jagger in his late sixties prime, followed by the truly gorgeous ‘Out Of State‘, which is probably closer to his Pixies work (oh cut me some slack, will you? I got all the way to the fifth album before the P-word slipped out!) than anything on the previous Catholics albums.

San Antonio, TX‘ is a blast. Bizarrely it’s kind of a hybrid of old British music hall, folk, rock and country. I love that one more than most Catholics tracks but even THAT is soon bettered by the triumphant Honky-tonk of ‘Are You Headed My Way?

There’s something highly satisfying about Devil’s Workshop even if I can’t quite put my finger on why. If you can write blistering songs like ‘Whiskey In Your Shoes‘ though, you’re clearly on another level as a songwriter.

The final album released by the band was 2003’s Show Me Your Tears. The moody ‘Nadine‘ heads off this set, menacing like something from a Tarantino movie. ‘Everything Is New‘ is more soulful, almost Motown like in places, while ‘My Favourite Kiss‘ throws a knowing glance at the likes of Sun Kil Moon, whose debut album came out that very year.

Jaina Blues‘ is nothing but joyful and again acknowledging The Rolling Stones musically. You can’t help but smile listening to that. Completely at odds with that, ‘New House Of The Pope‘ is gritty and bluesy, and full of atmosphere.

The remainder of Show Me Your Tears is eminently listenable if not exactly spectacular (the warm and arresting ‘Coastline‘ probably the highlight), but it, along with the other five albums included here, serves as a reminder that Frank Black and The Catholics are a FAR better band than you might remember.

Simply a magnificent box set.

The Complete Studio Sessions is released on 8th July through Demon.


God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.