Monday, April 20, 2009

Grand Duchy: Petit Fours

That big fucking shadow constantly trailing Frank Black is his Pixies legacy. As the bald-headed and shrieking frontman of that most fabled and celebrated of indie bands - bow, genuflect and offer a sacrifice in their honor - Black's post-Pixies efforts will likely always be weighed against that band's albums. Sure it's completely unfair and sets Black up for high expectations that are impossible to meet, but like other artists who have done their definitive work as part of a band before venturing out on a somewhat checkered solo career - Paul McCartney, Joe Strummer, Bob Mould, Ricky Martin - it goes with the territory.

Judged by any standards and setting legacies aside, Grand Duchy's Petits Fours is an entirely underwhelming and largely lifeless album. Trading under the Black Francis guise this time around, Francis is joined by his wife Violet Clark, guitars, drums and way too many synthesizers and various bleeps and blips. Points for experimentation simply aren't enough to save this album from being anything more than a curiosity piece at best.

Pixies fans who might be horrified to hear such a synth-heavy sound from Francis should abandon ship now. Indeed, nearly every song either starts with or features synths that sound ripped from the 1980s playbook; to the duo's credit, they do acknowledge that Clark is a fan of that decade's music. Still in this case that love translates into a pretty dull set of songs. Most songs adhere to the same basic pattern, with tracks like "Come On Over To My House," "Lovesick," and "Seeing Stars" all opening with synths that are eventually augmented (or put out of their misery) by guitars, drums and occasional keyboards. This pattern soon becomes both predictable and grating, with the album's scant nine songs and under 40-minute running time seeming much longer. On other songs this approach feels too tame, reserved, and precise; Clark's overly careful singing doesn't do "The Long Song" any favors, while Francis' patented screams on "Black Suit" aren't enough to offset the album's sheer repetitiveness. Less forgivable is the album's overall inaccessibility, with the listener left wondering whether the album is one big inside joke or Francis and Clark simply indulging their musical whims. Judging from the giggles on "Volcano!" or the too-clever humor of "Break the Angels," maybe it is. But we don't know, and the songs aren't interesting enough to make us want to find out.

This review shouldn't be construed as yet another reactionary Pixies fan wanting Francis to record Surfer Rosa Revisited. We can safely put those Pixies albums (not so fast, Trompe Le Monde) on the pedestal where they belong, periodically dust them off and go shit crazy for how great they really are, and them put them back. Taken at face value, without considering the history of the man whose name is associated with the album, Petits Fours sounds like little more than either a bizarre homage or pastiche to the glory days of 1980's synth, with guitars and drums thrown in almost as afterthoughts. Certainly Francis has created some excellent music in his post-Pixies career - I'm excluding those reunion shows that get belched out periodically of late - and it's always welcome to see a musician who's clearly not interested in reliving days of past glories. Yet that disregard for the past that served Francis well on standout album Teenager Of the Year and the underrated Honeycomb sinks Petits Fours. Perhaps best left to the completists out there, it's a bland album that, despite the best efforts of those involved, all too frequently sounds both overindulgent and inessential.

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