Paley & Francis – [Album]

Monday, 24 October 2011

Over the last ten years, singer/guitarist Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Black Francis, a.k.a. Frank Black) has seemed intent on proving to his fans that the scope of sound he's capable of creating is limited only by his imagination – but the catch is that not everything he has recorded necessarily merits release. Since 2001, Thompson has put out fourteen albums of new material but, for every gold nugget he has presented (like Devil's Workshop, Honeycomb and Bluefinger), there have been as many lumps of coal (including Black Letter Days, Svn Fngrs and Abbabubba) released through the same timeline. Because of that, hearing of another release from this most prolific performer (it's his second this year) could be met with as much enthusiasm as it could be trepidation and speculation; the verdict on the quality of the music being out until the record spins.

Fans will be relieved to hear that Thompson's collaboration with Reid Paley, simply entitled Paley & Francis, is most definitely a keeper. This time choosing to rely on nothing more than acoustic guitars and a clean, C&W rhythm section, the duo successfully intertwines their unique fascinations (a bit of otherworldly and occasionally existential stargazing from Thompson and a bit of stargazing from a dusty, wind-swept Southern Hell from Paley) and finds a middle ground between them that is as dark and rustic as it is warm and endearing. It's an unlikely place for both men to come from, but it is surprisingly charming.

As always seems to happen with a new Francis/Black/Thompson release, listeners will be surprised by what they find as “Curse” opens Paley & Francis and reveals a startlingly sweet-sounding ballad, in spite of the song's title and lyric sheet. Here, it's hard for listeners to not feel their hearts melting even though likes like, “Hey I put a curse on you/ Wait I will get back at you/ Hate is seeping from my skin/ Love made me burst into tears” don't welcome an audience at all” don't welcome them at all, but it isn't the lyrics which are the pull; it's the Ennio Morricone-inspired, train track, clickity-clack movement which catches them and pulls them along for the ride. The same is true when Paley takes the lead with a blustery baritone (sort of half Lou Reed and half Tom Waits – somehow) to beg forgiveness of a girl from a street corner below her apartment window. With those first two tracks, the album's fate is sealed; the success or failure of it with listeners will depend entirely upon how much enjoyment they take from an unlikely set of circumstances (most significantly these two particular players meeting at just the right moment in Thompson's current creative arc), and the music those circumstances have yielded. For some listeners, this album will be just precisely the perfect thing to hear and will sit in a place of honor next to Ween's 12 Golden Country Greats as a slice of offbeat genius for years to come but, by the same token, it will be regarded as wishy-washy, weak and tedious by those who wish to be hit with some epic, uniquely “Frank Black” fare.



Paley & Francis
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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