Black Francis? Ain’t heard the dude since he was doing the “loud-quiet-loud” thing with the Pixies; you know, girl-boy vocals, surf-punk guitar, screaming something about a planet of sound and losing his marbles. Okay, we might be musing as such over Bluefinger if Francis really had disappeared after he dissolved the Pixies, but of course he’s been here all along. In 1993 the corpulent singer (nee Charles Thompson) simply changed his stage name from Black Francis to Frank Black as he embarked on a solo career. And that career, for better (1994’s Teenager of the Year) or poorer (1998’s Frank Black and the Catholics) hasn’t treaded too far from the work he did with his erstwhile band.
“Some things in life are so beautiful/ make you go back, again and again/ make you go right back to the end,” he sings in a rather poignant verse on Bluefinger‘s “Tight Black Rubber.” But really the name change is more of a ruse than some sort of trip to the past (he accomplished that with the brief reunion of the Pixies in 2004). Frankie’s twelfth studio solo album is the same skittery near-punk that has defined his career: “Captain Pasty” is twitchy metronomic-shifts a la much of Teenager; melodic, punchy “Your Mouth into Mine” is a cousin of “Wave of Mutilation”; the emphatic amphibrachic enunciation of “Lol-eee-ta” recalls the chorus of “Gigantic.”
It’s fair to say Francis is an uncannily visionary musician, and “Your Mouth into Mine” is probably his best song in years. But the brilliance of the Pixies was that the band’s albums did so much more than wiry mid-tempos that bog down Bluefinger. Its gestalt encompassed campy pop and goofy surf-rock and brooding ballads, not just the melody-driven odd-duck songwriterisms that Francis pursues solo. The band didn’t just threaten to rock out, it actually did (“U-Mass,” “Planet of Sound”) — a cover of Herman Brood’s “You Can’t Break a Heart and Have It” is the closest Bluefinger gets to being gloriously unhinged. Like much of his solo work, the album feels like just one panel of Francis’s distorted-mirror talent. What’s missing here mostly is riffs: Bluefinger emphasizes Francis’s vocal melodies, and it doesn’t help that he sounds already out of breath at the beginning of songs.
Bluefinger is catchy in spots but ultimately forgettable, which for a resident alt-legend like Francis is at least occasionally memorable, if you’ll follow my shaded connotations. But his merely okay, quantity-over-quality career of late makes the more dubious of us with the feeling he should start earning his keep.