Portraying himself as an average suburban nobody — his singing voice is artless, his guitar playing average and he’s certainly not pretty — Frank Black, aka Black Francis, aka Charles Thompson IV, is an extroverted mystery, an irony-coated creature of unexplained obsessions. His oblique, often opaque songs singe the hairs of self-amusement for reasons that are impossible to discern. Although he’d probably like folks to wonder if he’s the son of dada or just an esoteric goofball, he’s really just a semi-talent in post-modern leisure wear.
In the Pixies, Black Francis’ grinding, explosive taste for rock drama gave the band its raw power and magisterial sense of occasion; on the other hand, indulgences like alphabetical set lists, merciless shrieking and such pointless exercises as covering the Jesus and Mary Chain made the group less titanic than it might have been. When the group ended, he changed his name as well as his life, becoming Frank Black and hooking up with keyboardist/producer Eric Drew Feldman (a veteran of both Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band) for a more modestly scaled solo career. Frank Black downplays but doesn’t discard the Pixies’ roaring aggression — the first sound you hear is acoustic guitar, but “Los Angeles” drops an all-electric shoe loudly 20 seconds later — and shapes up with generally simpler, poppier, more accessible tunes, produced with arch imagination and fine musicianship. (The firm rock cover of Brian Wilson’s “Hang on to Your Ego” — which the Beach Boys rejected until he turned it into “I Know There’s an Answer” — is incisive, effective and illustrative.) But Black’s dry wit pours Pernod all over the album’s ice cream: lines like “I had so many problems/And then I got me a Walkman” lead nowhere, turning enjoyment into a challenge of meanings hidden and otherwise. He’s capable of creative clarity — “Two Spaces” mounts a rational argument against gravity — but the surreal landscapes of the mostly geographical songs (try “Old Black Dawning”: “I hung around/On the planet Mabel/She tried to stand/But she was not able”) turn potential sonic pleasure into a frustrating chore.
The science-and-technology-themed Teenager of the Year, however, makes the careful travels of its predecessor seem like see-Frank-run. “(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain” details the depth of Black’s Beefheartian self-consciousness. Again co-produced by Feldman, the album spews out half-baked ideas with abandon — 22 complete songs in all — rushing through guitar-loaded gusts of Pixiesque fury, pretty slices of mocking pop and crypto-country, all of it impenetrably odd and none of it especially well developed. Either trivial (“Whatever Happened to Pong?”), whimsical (“Space Is Gonna Do Me Good”) or impossibly weird (“Fiddle Riddle”), if these were the high-grade demos they sound to be, at least half of the free-association incidents of words and chords wouldn’t have been worth completing. Keepers: “Calistan,” “Speedy Marie,” “Headache,” “I Could Stay Here Forever,” “White Noise Maker,” “Pie in the Sky.”
The Cult of Ray, self-produced with a new band that doesn’t include Feldman, is generic Black-ness, a slack repetition of formula that makes the vacuum-packed flatness of Frank’s songwriting all too plain. Other than a couple of catchy tunes (“Dance War” is the late standout), there’s nothing here he hasn’t done better before. And twice was plenty.