Frank Black is a tough one to peg.
Born Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV, he stormed onto the indie scene of the mid-1980s like the proverbial bull in a china shop, christening himself Black Francis and fronting Boston-based group the Pixies with a weird amalgam of colloquial Spanish, UFO ephemera, biblical imagery, and a fascination with American pop culture that he served up via a deafening scream.
In the '90s, he relaunched his career under the nom de plume Frank Black, dumping the Pixies during a radio show (when he pulled the plug, his bandmates were the last to know) to record The Cult of Ray and form the Catholics. He divorced and remarried, became a father, and relocated to the West Coast.
Somewhere along the way, Black mellowed. Those piercing shrieks gave way to a deep-voiced maturity; the guitar feedback and bizarre phrasing faded out and were replaced by jaunty, rootsy rock. The transformation into Ferdinand, the storybook bull who preferred to sit and smell flowers all day long instead of vanquishing his enemy in the ring, shocked fans, but Black characteristically did as he pleased, even reuniting with the Pixies for U.S. and European tours in 2004. In '05, he traveled to Nashville to record Honeycomb with a studio full of Southern soul session legends, including Steve Cropper, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, David Hood, and Reggie Young.
Honeycomb's follow-up, Fast Man Raider Man, released in June, is Black's second foray into sprawling, straightforward roots rock. Like its predecessor, it was cut in Nashville with many of the same musicians -- and special guests such as famed songwriters P.F. Sloan and Cowboy Jack Clement, drummer Levon Helm, and organist Ian McLagen.
Think of an iconic rock star traveling to Music City and you'll immediately come up with Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, yet Fast Man Raider Man owes much more to the Band's Music From Big Pink. Substitute Cowboy Jack's Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa for the Band's house in Woodstock, New York, and temper Richard Manuel's lyrics with a heavy dose of Black's arms-length cynicism, and you've got it -- a loose, jam-type atmosphere that masks the uncertainty of the vocals. "When the Paint Grows Darker Still" might be his "Tears of Rage," while the lyrics of songs such as "In My Time of Ruin," "Golden Shore," and "Wanderlust" echo the desperation Rick Danko detailed on "This Wheel's on Fire."
Minus the angst that fueled the Pixies, Black's storytelling skills leisurely unwind on this 26-song double CD, which has received mixed reviews from critics and fans alike.
"Whatever things that are different between 2006 and 1986, they've all been gradual," Black himself insists. "Whatever shifts that may be perceived when contrasting the present with the distant past, all I can say is that you've gotta start looking somewhere in the middle to know what transitions have occurred. People wanna say, 'Now it's like this, now it's like that,' but things are never that black and white."
In Black's mind, a song is a song is a song, regardless of the feedback level or the musicianship of, say, a sessions group culled from an epic period of hit records.
"I don't like it when certain reviewers act like I'm not in my element," he says. "I find it offensive, narrow-minded, and silly to think that Reggie Young or Spooner can't play with another type of singer. I haven't wandered into uncharted territory here -- listen to a song like 'Hey' from Doolittle, and you'll realize it's not such a stretch for me.
"I'm not saying I sing as good as James Carr but whatever," Black adds with a dry chuckle.
As the opening act for the Foo Fighters, he spent the last few months playing for audiences who had no idea who James Carr even was.
"There was not a lot of glory," Black admits. "It was a little bit humbling, which can be good in its own way. It's good to occasionally perform in front of people who aren't converted, who aren't sold on you, or who don't even know who you are.
"It's more pure, in terms of art. It's not a celebration of yourself, which can really skew things," he adds, alluding to overzealous Pixies holdouts who continue to dog him.
"On one hand, it's frustrating. I'm thinking, Gee, you're supposed to be alternative -- open your minds. But when you realize certain people aren't getting it at all, it's also validating. You realize, Oh yeah, all that other stupid shit they said doesn't matter either, because they don't know what they're talking about. That's good news, because I win. But the bad news is, darn, they don't get it.
"Even people in my inner circle don't quite get it," he admits. "Sometimes, they yearn for those more rockin' times."