Long removed from his reputation-establishing work fronting the Pixies, Frank Black has watched his stature diminish terribly over the past ten years. While ex-bandmate Kim Deal went on to great success with her Breeders, the onetime indie-rock hero has bounced around a few labels, recording lackluster albums of varying quality.
Well, that's the conventional wisdom, anyway.
The truth goes a little more like this: Black left the Pixies, a great if overrated college band designed for smart kids who weren't afraid of punk. Though his solo career never reached the heights of, say, Doolittle, this was mostly because his own profile -- and his scene's profile -- had waned. Free from any underground movement, no longer blazing a trail for Kurt Cobain to follow into the mainstream, Black could, in essence, do whatever the hell he wanted for his small, rabid following nostalgically clinging to its own alterna-youth.
But rather than try to duplicate the Pixies' volatile success, Black traded in his surf guitars and bellowing voice for a spate of endearingly good-to-great records. And on Show Me Your Tears, he continues his last few albums' journey into different styles -- rockabilly, fierce rockers, down-on-his-luck blues, maybe even a ballad. The sound may have changed, but the distinctive spirit remains.
After the double-dose glut of last year's Devil's Workshop and Black Letter Days, the new disc practically glows with discipline and focus. Cult institutions like Bob Pollard forever run the risk of self-indulgence by over-recording for the fawning masses, but Black has shown a steady hand for intelligent experimentation. This means that only on a teeth-shredder like "Nadine" does he come close to mimicking his old group's catharsis. So even though not enough people stuck around to notice, he has abandoned such velocity for an ever-deepening vulnerability and honesty, an owning-up to emotion and helplessness. Reflective songs like "My Favorite Kiss" and "Manitoba" have a tenderness that retains a lyrical sophistication. (Is the narrator of "Manitoba" an escaped jailbird or a grieving retirement-home dweller? Dunno. But let's put it on again for the hell of it to find out.)
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If he had released an album titled Show Me Your Tears back when he was Black Francis, fans would have taken it to be a nasty, vindictive taunt. But a decade after the Pixies went out of business, Black ain't the snotty showoff he once was, lending Tears a sense of empathy and shared turmoil. Thank God Frank Black didn't get boring on us. He's that rare survivor who chose impulse over consistency, maturity or professionalism.