SVN FNGRS (Cooking Vinyl)
By Scott Deckman
For an icon steeped in alt-rock decoration and colorful lore, Frank Black sure loves to start an album off with his worst song of the bunch. This is a trend he started in 1996 with “The Marsist,” the first cut off of The Cult of Ray, a Herculean letdown of a record after, arguably, the best five-album stretch run of any artist in the modern rock era (1989’s Doolittle with the Pixies through 1994’s Teenager of the Year). He did it again, to lesser degrees, on 2001’s Dog in the Sand (“Blast Off”), 2002’s Black Letter Days (a bombastic cover of Tom Waits’ “The Black Rider”), and 2003’s Show Me Your Tears (“Nadine”). Why he does this is an open question: Maybe he wants to turn pop-heads off and get rid of any phony bandwagoners out there; maybe he needs a better listening board; maybe he wants to make the listener suffer; or maybe the bard had a bad chicken curry for like five weeks straight before doing the album sequencing. Of course, music being what it is – a subjective exercise of the soul via the auditory, I could be wrong. But after listening to new EP SVN FNGRS‘ first track “The Seus,” about the Greek demigod Theseus, I think there’s something psychological going on, something bordering on narcissism and self-destruction, with maybe a little sliver of masochism thrown in for good measure, i.e., you will adore me no matter what I start this record off with, slave! Be that as it may, fans of Nelly and 50 Cent may wanna perk up their ears, because on opener “The Seus” we get to hear Black throw down rhymes over a tuneless guitar and funky beats before retreating to an ethereal chorus that almost saves the song, but not quite. Yet Black Francis Raps all seems part of a larger mosaic, as if by going back to the old name, he’s also reclaimed the old experimental vigor of his past. That’s encouraging, but this is one shot in the dark that misses the barn door, let alone the red-seamed white leather ball.
Luckily, he wises up on the rest of the album, all-in-all extending his mid-career comeback with some mighty fine songs. Not quite the concept album of last effort, Bluefinger, this album sports at least a leitmotif: demigods. That said, one of the coolest things about this collection is the number of tunes featuring strong, memorable choruses you can picture in movie trailers, like second song “Garbage Heap.” In this song – as well as on most of the record – Black plays to his melodic strengths, and unlike Bluefinger, SVN FNGRS is reminiscent of his better moments with former backing band, the Catholics. “Half Man” sees him at his most nasally, harkening back to that “Duke of Earl” cover more than a decade prior, sounding a bit like Neil Young.
“I Sent Away” shows he’s still weird and still has sex on the brain, and the YouTube video proves your prurient ears right. The song is about the hazards of “sending away” for a sex robot and getting more than you bargained for. And discriminating fans will appreciate the harmonica action (which actually sounds like horns), bringing them back to the halcyon days of Teenager of the Year. “Seven Fingers” is a Monkees hit that never was, a supra-metacarpal mutant’s lament at his lot in life, though a mutant that’s gonna get some tonight. “The Tale of Lonesome Fetter” reminds one of how pathetic life can get. This may be an ode to Lewis Carroll, with a calming, steady rhythm guitar, and Black speak-singing about being, well, a lonesome fetter. It’s an intimate, surreal look at loneliness from someone who’s probably seen the inside of motel rooms more than most. Regardless of chord structure or subject matter, these are well-written songs, stripped of ostentation, the playing for the sake of the song instead of the sake of wanking. This gives his neo-classic rock a Beatlesy, post-punk sensibility which cements his uniqueness: He’s never gonna do anything strictly by the book. And all that crap earlier about Charley starting off his records with clunkers? Well, he also has a habit of ending his joints with some of his best, as in “When They Come to Murder Me,” which is reminiscent of Internet album Oddballs‘ “Pray a Little Faster.” Though not as ferocious as the aforementioned, this is still Frank Black XY, a Catholics-era driver with big chords and sing-along chorus. The lyrics are virile and imaginative (Verses: “Third time is the charm/But I’m still a double seed/Touch me in my arm/I can cut you like a weed”; “Honey I was born in a double orgasm/Battle for the cattle/Yeah gimme war spasms.” Chorus: “When they come to murder me/Oh I’m already gone, bye-bye.”). Presumably based on Irish demigod Cuchullainn – album namesake who was said to have seven fingers – it is a tale of woe, deadly pursuit, and eventual escape, though that escape may be physical death. It could also be a shout-out to fickle critics who may’ve said his solo career was circling the toilet at many points during the last decade. Who knows what this mad hatter is thinking? Either way, these images burn sensory engrams in your mind and make you think those Nashville records are a thing of the past.
Now a family man with kids, he claims he went into the studio for a short burst and stayed until the magic was over, thus producing just seven songs. And it’s too bad the creative juices fell short of a full record, because, as with his last tilt, he’s onto something good, a regenerative second-life bursting with songcraft. But take heart ye restless fans, for thou can rejoice in the fact that, unless he dies, is the victim of an obscure fugue, or becomes a monk, he’s gonna keep churning out eclectic albums like there’s no tomorrow, even if, invariably, the first song sucks.