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Weekly Alibi Back in Black, Frankly

By Brendan Doherty

JUNE 22, 1998: 

Frank Black Puts the Ability Back Into Credibility

Charles Francis is shopping a record around, and who the hell cares? It's been out on various labels all across the world, but not in this country. This guy is no Yanni, this white, slightly overweight blonde man with an ability to shift from a whisper to a scream at the drop of a hat. Like John Doe, Charles Francis is an artist with genuine credibility, sales of hundreds of thousands of records, years of college airplay and lingering love from critics. Like Doe, he will likely have to approach small independent labels in order to release Frank Black and the Catholics.

His saga would be best named "the Frank Black Story: Here Comes Your Man." Caught in legal entanglements as a result of American Recordings' bankruptcy and lawsuits to release rights to records and sue for royalties owed, he is a marquee name that has gotten short shrift. He has taken competent, well-recorded finished songs in hopes of finding someone to release them. He appears adrift in musical seas despite loyal fans.

"I just talked to Joey (Santiago, former Pixies lead guitarist)," says Francis. "I was over at his house just the other day." The Pixies' efforts, released from 1988 to 1990 were an art-rock explosion that left a definitive mark on the movement that became known as "alternative." Francis shared singing and writing duties in the Pixies with Kim Deal, later of the Breeders. For a short time, the band caused the music world to collectively hold their breath. They dissolved with a whimper, and Francis moved to release Frank Black, his first solo effort. But despite its strong sales, a slumping record industry doesn't seem interested in him.

"I can't emphasize the lack of interest enough," Francis says. "I don't mind the ignorance of people who can make money off of music. I enjoy the struggle. I enjoy the obscurity. It makes me think, confirms my sense that I'm up to something decent."

That sense of decency springs from a tape of his latest; rough and rugged, the unprocessed but clean sound is as striking on the recording as the fire of a band firing on all cylinders. Francis knows it's a good release. Even fans of the Pixies will find, when it's available in the States, that it has a roughneck quality that is out of keeping with most of his solo work, but not out of his experience.

"It feels macho," Francis says. "For the first time in 10 years, I did a demo, you know, to shop it around to Mister Big Rock Producer. We recorded Frank Black and the Catholics live to two track in the studio. It feels right and tough, the way rock should be. You won't catch me wishing we could dump that into a Macintosh computer and back out. There aren't extra layers of sound or sampling. We were excited about this because we finally captured a sound we recognized--ourselves as a live band. Sometimes you play a good show, but you never have tape representing that. This was us on a good night, and it sounds great."

So, what's the problem, and why isn't it in stores? Francis is a man still determined in the belief that he does great work, but he's not the guy that makes pimply 15-year-olds part with all of their parents' cash. Francis' work is still good for something to his old label, Elektra/4AD. The repackaging of his former band's songs, Death to the Pixies on double CD, released this year, has sold thousands of copies, underscoring Black's place in rock history, past and present.

"All of my records are in the black and out of the red," Francis says. "And people aren't interested. I've never sold a million of anything, and record labels don't want a flagship artist with credibility to attract this five minutes' worth of hamburger off of the streets. They vault these guys up, and down they go just as fast. You can be an influential guy and you can make money, but if you're small potatoes, you're only good for so much. If I can't be popular--with this record, I've drawn a line in the sand, and said, 'Ha, ha, ha, I know I'm pure.'"?

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