Frank Black & The Catholics Double Up

Excerpted from the magazine for

A decade ago, Charles Thompson, aka Frank Black, was opening for U2 on the Zoo TV tour as Black Francis, the abrasively creative guitar-playing frontman of the Pixies. Success was smiling on Thompson and his critically lauded band; Kurt Cobain had just helped punk explode into the mainstream by, in his own words, "ripping off" Thompson's dynamic approach to guitar pop. But internal tensions were wreaking havoc on the Pixies. Within a year, the indie darlings had split.

A decade on, the California-born Thompson has grown as a musician and found his true calling. As Frank Black, a troubadour of the old order, he has not stopped the creative flow and indeed may be in the midst of his most fertile period yet. With the help of the Catholics, his band of seven years, he's outlasted much of his former peer group. He shows no signs of slowing down, given the onset of his seventh and eighth solo sets, "Black Letter Days" and "Devil's Workshop," which were simultaneously released Aug. 20 via SpinArt.

With 29 songs between them, the dual releases well represent the band's rock'n'roll workhorse aesthetic. "Black Letter Days," which was recorded between last October and January, opens and closes with different versions of Tom Waits' apocalyptic ditty "The Black Rider," and in between runs the gamut of the Catholics' repertoire: witness the balls-out rock of "1826" and "Black Letter Day," the storytelling "Valentine and Garuda," the high, lonesome plains balladry of "The Farewell Bend" and "Whispering Weeds," and the road-trip rocker "California Bound."

But after completing this expansive 18-track album, the group still had a sizeable batch of material worked up and decided to do more recording sessions in March and April, which bore "Devil's Workshop."

The more concise of the two, "Devil's Workshop" is a heady 11-track workout, featuring 35 minutes of uptempo rock epitomized by the angular "San Antonio, TX" and the ominous storm tale "His Kingly Cave." The album also refashions a couple Black nuggets, including "Velvety," which had wordlessly surfaced in 1990 as the Pixies B-side "Velvety Instrumental Version."

This month, Black and the Catholics will back where they were born to be -- on tour. The run will opening with a split bill Oct. 8 at the Troubadour in Los Angeles with Violent Femmes frontman Gordon Gano, and wrapping Nov. 8 at Avalon in Boston.

Noted road hog Black acknowledges that "we've spent quite a few years just touring wherever we want, whenever we want," with just the group and two vans. But this time around, he and his band want to streamline the tour experience, being a little more selective with markets and venues.

"I just want the band to be really fresh," he explains. "I wanna thin it out a little bit and do a nice show. I'm not saying we're gonna bring production and lights and fireworks, but just do a really good job."

Excerpted from the Oct. 5, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the members section.

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