He Contains Multitudes
Whichever appellation Charles Thompson assumes when performing, listeners are sure to be confronted by oblique lyrics and angular music. The persona varies, but the challenge of the music remains.
Of course, there is pleasure to be had, too. From Thompson’s early days fronting the Pixies through his solo career as Frank Black, he has delivered hard-rocking songs and amusing variants on rock forms.
Two relatively recent releases continue that trend. Svn Fngrs, a short-EP that appeared in March 2008 under the moniker Black Francis, features seven songs filled with obscure lyrics, varied vocals, and off-kilter rhythms. This is the Charles Thompson listeners know and love, a grunge-era Captain Beefheart.
It is the second album, however, that delivers genuine surprises. Grand Duchy’s Petits Fours arrived in early 2009 but hearkens back to 80s-era synth. The lyrics are direct, the themes recognizable pop subjects, and the music is–mostly–pure pop.
On Svn Fngrs, Black Francis depicts a musical world peculiarly his own. According to the record company, the mythological Irish hero, Cuchulainn, who had seven fingers and seven toes, inspired much of the record. Perhaps. Pursuit, struggle, competition, and masculinity provide the record with its themes, although listeners have to grapple with the lyrics to discern that. Musically, Thompson is much more direct: Svn Fngrs swaggers and rocks. Play it loud.
Opening track, “The Seus,” sets the tone. Crunchy guitar, occasional harmonica flourishes and multiple vocal lines add up to a rap by way of Captain Beefheart. The tone is crisp; the rhythms collide. It is a thrilling beginning to the record, especially when Thompson blurts, “I am the great fat pig!”
Thompson’s voice varies from song to song, adding to the musicality. In “I Sent Away,” a pleasing rocker with a herky-jerk punk rhythm, he adds a slight quiver to his voice. In “Half Man,” he sings in a falsetto voice, “I am half man / I’m almost like you.”
“When They Come to Murder Me” closes the record with a flourish. This noirish song rocks hard. Loud guitars and driving drums frame the tale of an invincible man “born in a double orgasm.” In “Don’t cry,” he admonishes his beloved, “When they come to murder me, I’m already gone bye-bye.”
This archetypal male figure and the familiar narrative he inspires are absent from Petits Fours, Thompson’s duo project with his wife, Violet Clark. Instead, listeners will find forthright lyrics about desire and longing, synthesizers that burble and coo, and random passages in French. Thompson and Clark trade off on vocals, but her sweet, child-like voice dominates.
Separation, longing and connection are themes throughout. “Lovesick,” about a couple having phone sex, is told from the woman’s perspective. “My hands are ready to take their place,” she sings to him, but when he asks “What are you wearing?” she breaks into giggles.
Pop flourishes appear throughout: the “la, la, las” in “Fort Wayne,” the spoken-word interlude in “Break the Angels,” and the 80s synth washing over “Seeing Stars.” In “Ermesinde,” the couple even bust out a vocoder.
The album closes with “Volcano!” a silly pop ditty that would have made an excellent music video for a girl group circa 1983. “Hey muscle bear,” Clark sings over a toe-tapping beat, “I love your hair.” Even the song’s concise, tasty guitar solo adds to the sugary feel.
Old fans of Thompson’s may be put off by this album’s accessibility, which would be unfortunate, as musicians often have a wider range of influences and interests than their fans allow. Taken together, these two recent releases show just how quirky and prodigious he is.