REVIEW: Frank Black, The Cult of Ray (American)

Somewhere between Bleach and Nevermind, Kurt Cobain dropped the heavy-metal mask and Nirvana embraced popdom with a whole heart. He later said he was inspired by Black Francis of the Pixies, who was writing very poppy stuff and yet retaining some kind of alternative credibility. The Pixies produced pop with surface abrasions (mainly Black Francis’s screaming) and a certain self-consciousness. The video for “Here Comes Your Man” had the band “lip-syncing” by opening their mouths as wide as they could, an attempt to trade in pop currency while critiquing the process.

When the Pixies split up, Kim Deal went on to write a clutch of hit songs with the Breeders, but Frank Black (as he is now known) has pretty much dropped out of sight on his (now) three solo albums. This is not a big surprise in the sense that the Breeders play with pop in structurally obvious ways, like making funny sounds and using distortion in nonstandard ways, but the result remains super-catchy pop. On The Cult of Ray we find Frank Black playing against pop in ways that are not so easy on the public ear.

The Cult of Ray sounds like the product of a man who’s lost faith in rock and listening to this tape may undermine your own faith in punk/pop. The band has a spontaneous feel to it, but the songs are arranged oddly. Frank sings and there is a straightahead bass and drum rhythm section, but the guitar solos nonstop through the whole record. That’s right, it’s just a duet between Frank and a wanking Steve Vai-ish guitar hero (Lyle Workman) with drums and bass indicating chords. The idea sounds cooler than the reality, but Frank Black seems to want to get away from the alternative-standard arrangement of distorted guitar blasting out song chords.

Many other aspects of the record reflect an exhaustion with pop (I’m desperately trying to avoid any words prefixed with post- here). There is a questionable but thought-provoking theory that a creative form in decline becomes self-referential and we have that in spades here. There’s a song about “Punk Rock City”, “Jesus Was Right” claims “I/ play guitar for elevation…/ I like distortion when I barre chord”, the next song has Frank saying “But the chorus was pretty much the same/ every time I wrote this song”. Throw in “Dance War” and “Mosh, Don’t Pass the Guy” and most of the record is about rock.

The songs also draw on real oddball/novelty concerns and material, another sign of an exhausted form. “The Marsist” is about a guy obsessed with reaching the face mountain on Mars, the title track is about Ray Bradbury, the last track uses the name “Shazeb Andleeb” (rhymed with “glebe”!). This is reminiscent of Wire’s material when they were at their creative nadir (song titles like “ZEGK HOQP” and “Eels Sang Lino”), hoping weirdo wordplay would add inspiration to the same old forms.

Musically, the feeling is similar: “The Marsist” takes a “Pretty Woman”-style lick and sets it against a wailing one-note guitar yell. The chord progressions are close to standard pop with one or two weird chords thrown in, or with an extra measure here or there to keep the rhythm less ordinary.

It’s great to see Frank Black pushing at the boundaries of his musical world, but this tape has a real transitional feel to it. The songs that work best are the straightest like “The Men in Black” and this is not a great sign on an experimental record. In some sense, the experiments are as obvious as the Breeders’ experiments. If you look at the later John Lennon Beatles songs, he tries the same kinds of experiments: odd lyrics, throwing in extra measures or using odd rhythms, and there are numerous other similar examples. It’s not terrible to be found repeating the same kind of experiments as John Lennon, especially since Frank Black has already worked out a number of pop formulas on the Pixies records and done more than his share of influencing. But ultimately you are judged by the quality of your music and the music that you inspire, and The Cult of Ray is interesting, but lacking on both counts.