Spirit of Dutch debaucher inspired Black Francis
The relative merits of Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV's output with the Pixies versus his solo career have long been a source of debate among alt-rock fans. With the reunion of his seminal band a few years back, the minor controversy was stirred further, and his decision to readopt his former nom de plume for his latest release isn't going to quell message-board discussions.
But more interesting than his decision to release Bluefinger under the name Black Francis rather than his usual solo moniker, Frank Black is the inspiration behind the disc. Herman Brood was a pioneering Dutch rocker and painter who, after years of ravaging himself with hard drugs, committed suicide at the age of 54. In the press release for the album Thompson admits to having been "gripped by the spirit" of Brood while recording a bonus track for a Frank Black best-of disc, titled 93-03. The result is a disc that is, directly and indirectly, related to Brood.
"I'd heard about him but never really listened to him," says Thompson, calling from his manager's Portland, Oregon, office. "I discovered a performance of his on YouTube, and it was riveting."
What he unearthed while researching the European musician's life motivated him to write and record a new batch of tunes. The most obvious Brood-indebted song may be "Angels Come to Comfort You", which features Violet Clark (Mrs. Black Francis) on backup vocals and pays sombre tribute to the musician: "I saw the statue of Herman Brood," sings Thompson. "It had a lump down in its throat." "You Can't Break a Heart and Have It", meanwhile, is a scorching cover of a Brood thrasher.
Other homages, though, are less obvious. "Threshold Apprehension", a manic meltdown that most closely approximates the Pixies' sound, includes the line "Grand Marnier and a pocketful of speed", which was the doomed Dutchman's cocktail of choice later in life. The grungy title track, written from Brood's perspective, is full of striking imagery ("the pepperbox bell blowing my brains") as he tells of coming from the Dutch city of Zwolle, whose inhabitants are nicknamed blauwvingers ("bluefingers") for reasons too medieval to get into here.
For Thompson, the inspiration came at an opportune time. He had agreed to the best-of collection against his better judgment ("I'm not retired I had no emotional stake in it, it was just a bunch of old songs") and wasn't sure what to do next.
"I really didn't have any plan at all," says the singer. "I was like, 'Here I am, the Pixies reunion is over, they're not going to make a record, I'm 41. What am I going to do?'" Now that Bluefinger is out, Thompson is typically nonchalant about where it fits into his career.
"It seems to be getting a lot of good reviews. Is it going to change my life? No. It will maintain it. It's not going to tear up the charts." He's a small fish, he says, and he's fine with that. "I can always get a gig and put out a record. That's the goal of a musician. What more do I want?"
Black Francis plays Richard's on Richards Wednesday and next Thursday (October 3 and 4).