Recordings

Frank Black and the Catholics
Frank Black and the Catholics
(spinART Records)

Frank Black's fourth CD begins with a brief guitar goof on the Green Acres theme, followed by a messy false start. His band then lunges into one of those absurdly speedy tempos that Black uses, not to convey passion, but seemingly to confound and confuse his most ardent fans.

You're liable to decide that's it, all the indication you need that the strange, enigmatic ex-Pixies leader remains determined to muck up a potentially brilliant solo career with contrary, half-baked flights of whimsy.

However, about 10 seconds into this first song, "All My Ghosts," Black and his band, the Catholics, abruptly downshift to a more reasonably rocking tempo. From that point on, Black operates with a consistency of focus and commitment he hasn't shown since the Pixies' 1992 breakup.

The Pixies were the embodiment of alt-rock cool at the dawn of this decade, and they were a profound influence on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." But their reputation has fallen among revisionist historians, and no one has suffered more for it than Black. In the aftermath of grunge's emotional exorcisms, Black's cutesy, opaque lyrics have come to be seen as a sign that he's terminally disengaged from his own feelings. Scintillating as the Pixies' guitar hooks still sound, it's hard to deny that there's something cold and clinical about much of the band's material that doesn't wear well.

What Black does well, however, he does better than practically anyone in rock, combining wildly diffusive strains of guitar-pop into a package that's smart, propulsive, melodic and wildly exuberant. For Frank Black and the Catholics, he and his tight band recorded directly to two-track over three feverish days. This spontaneous approach might explain why Black sounds so unaffected and buoyant in the powerhouse rocker "I Need Peace" or so genuinely filled with lament in "Do You Feel Bad About It?" His stylistic unpredictability also surfaces with the demonic honky-tonk raver "Six Sixty-Six."

On this and other tracks, Black plays his old hide-and-seek games, shying away from revealing his own angst in favor of twisted third-person stories. In a way, his approach is reminiscent of David Byrne, who likewise has generally shunned confessional techniques out of a fear of succumbing to corniness. Unlike Byrne, though, Black can come off as condescending, archly superior to his own songs. Ultimately, though, when Black hits bull's eyes with his music, as he frequently does on this album, his lyrics are irrelevant. They're merely the ornamental, T. Rexish filigree that Black always claimed he preferred.

Black's audience may have dwindled over the years, and he may not be the icon of hipness he once was, but Frank Black and the Catholics is one of the hottest, most immediate blasts of guitar-driven song craft anyone's released this year.

--Gilbert Garcia

Otis Redding
Dreams to Remember:
The Otis Redding Anthology
(Rhino Records)

The soul music of the 1960s came in two major flavors--Southern and urban.
Both styles depended on singers who turned the fervor of black church services into fuel for secular music. Motown's slick, pop-savvy productions epitomized urban soul. Southern soul was grittier, punctuated by funky horns, closer to the blues in spirit and dripping with sweat and barbecue.

By the time a plane crash killed Otis Redding on December 10, 1967, he was the premier exponent of Southern soul. Redding was on the verge of a stylistic breakthrough with "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay," which posthumously became his biggest hit. The song meditates on loneliness and homesickness, delivering the most personal set of lyrics Redding ever wrote. It suggested new directions that Redding never got to explore. Fortunately, Redding's old directions were pretty good, too.

Redding could be a pure shouter like Little Richard or he could be almost as silky as Sam Cooke. However, the rasp in his voice bruised even the sweetest ballad with melancholy. The emotional stakes were always high when Otis Redding sang, and that's what's so appealing about him. Even when he sings "My Girl," in a surprisingly faithful version of the Temptations hit, he sounds as though he knows she'll leave him and he'll be devastated. When he delivers a marriage proposal in "Cigarettes and Coffee," he testifies with improvisatory intensity, carried away by the spirit.

Let's face it, there's nothing new an anthology can reveal about Otis Redding at this late date. His music has been repackaged and anthologized often since he died. Fortunately, Dreams to Remember, the latest Redding anthology, doesn't pretend to be the ultimate Redding collection. Like most two-CD Rhino retrospective sets, Dreams to Remember features a song selection that's smart, well-paced and well-chosen to give a picture of the singer's many facets.

All of Redding's milestones are included in this 50-cut collection: "Respect," "I've Been Loving You Too Long (to Stop Now)," "Try a Little Tenderness" and "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay." The lesser-known numbers, such as "Chained and Bound" and "Mr. Pitiful," yield many pleasures, too. Dreams to Remember closes with five tunes from Redding's barn-burning set at the Monterey Pop Festival.

If you need more Otis, Rhino's four-CD Otis: The Ultimate Otis Redding (released in 1993) goes deeper. However, there's something to be said for brevity. Otis may be more complete than Dreams to Remember, but it's not better.

--Salvatore Caputo

 
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