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Frank Black, a.k.a Black Francis, a.k.a Charles Michael Kittredge Thompson the Fourth is best known as the "inventor" of Alt Rock, while fronting "The Pixies", a late 80s/early 90s Cult band with fans like Curt Cubain and David Bowie (who has covered two Pixies tracks, including one "Cactus", on his 2002 album "Heathen"). But the Pixies have disbanded a long time ago, and despite a financially successful and artistically questionable reunion tour, true fans know that some of the most interesting music our hero has produced is scattered throughout his eleven Post-Pixies Studio albums, various B-Sides, and the soon to be released 2007 album "Bluefinger", which will feature Charles Thompson retaking his Pixies moniker for a concept album about the life and art of a Herman Brood, a Belgian Rock star.
Meanwhile, we have this album. A true oddity, Christmass is a 2006 release featuring assorted live tracks, hotel room recording, and a couple of demo-level songs. Most of the album tracks feature only Frank Black and the guitar, and were recorded on his 2006 solo acoustic tour.
This is not an album for the uninitiated fan, although Pixie-heads would appreciate the various Pixies songs here. Ever since it has been featured in David Fincher's classic Fight Club, "Where is My Mind?" became one of the Pixies' best known tunes. The rendition here is absolutely brilliant, Frank's powerful singing and the crowd's enthusiasm are both apparent. Of the other Pixies tunes, I quite like "Wave of Mutilation" which received subtle reworking, but am less fond of Cactus.
The assorted studio recordings vary between the cool-and-bizarre "Radio Lizard" which features only vocals in one of Frank's most experimental recordings in recent years, "(Do What You Want) Gyaneshwar" which is a fine, fast Frank song, and "Demon Girl" which is a silly and forgettable love song.
People who have been privileged enough to attend a Frank Black concert know that he's a phenomenal performer, and indeed, the live tracks are the highlight here. Though accompanied mostly by a guitar alone, Frank delivers rendition that routinely match or supersede the album versions. Although he doesn't hit gold every time - "Massif Central", probably the best track off Frank's 2003 album "Show Me Your Tears" sounds good but not nearly as powerful as the original - for the most part he delivers. So "Bullet" from "Dog in the Sand" sounds completely different (with the main riff muted) but every bit as powerful. "Nadine", not one of my favorite tracks, receives a spooky and subtly powerful reading, and "Living on Soul" a B-Side, sounds less like a hard rock track as in the original but as a powerful and effective pop/rock tune which narrates a sense of hopelessness, with cool cultural allusions to boost "You can't get off your stop/ like Old Charlie on the MTA".
The highlight of the album, for me at least, is the new track "Dead Man's Curve" first recorded in an as-yet-unreleased session with long time collaborator Eric Drew Feldman, "Dead Man's Curve" is one of the best Frank Black songs of all time. Hard rocking, musically clever and lyrically disturbing "I've seen the lights on the valley
/From Dead Man's Curve/Down lover's alley/I never lost my nerve". I have seen Frank perform this song live with a band, and it was an absolute peak in an outstanding show.
The CD comes with a bonus DVD which features Frank alone on the stage. While Frank's trademark energy and intensity takes an unusually long time to load, once Frank Black gets to the groove, he offers a mesmerizing performance, with special highlights including 2002's "California Bound" and the Pixies' classic "Ed is Dead".
Ultimately, this is a recording for those in the know. It shows a stripped Down Frank Black which may come as a shock to those who only know him from his Pixies or early solo days. For a new comer I would recommend the recent best-of collection. But for those who have already had a taste of Frank Black's music, and would like to go beyond step one, this is a worthy recording.