Popular music follows an evolutionary path. The success of most musicians depends not on their skill but instead on their adaptive advantages, which distinguishe them from others of their time. People remember The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Nirvana more for their (r)evolutionary role in musical history than their ability. But what remains when the innovation becomes routine? Case in point: the new release of Frank Black (formerly of the Pixies), Dog in the Sand.
The Pixies were an influential late-’80s new wave rock group that soothed college students weary of hair bands. This quartet produced five albums with Elektra from 1987 to 1991. Shortly after the group was invited to open for U2’s Zoo TV tour, it fell prey to artistic differences between Black Francis (guitar-vocalist front-man) and Kim Deal (bassist-vocalist, now of The Breeders). Since then, Black Francis has changed his name to Frank Black and released four albums, three with his solo group Frank Black and the Catholics.
Just as Frank Black is a permutation of Black Francis, the Catholics are a permutation of the Pixies. Dog in the Sand has the feel of a Pixies album, with Black’s contributions intensified. The guitar takes a central role and is often too loud in the mix. Interestingly, the bass that dominated many Pixies tunes is now barely audible — perhaps a result of Black’s conflict with Deal.
If Pixies fans listen to Dog out of nostalgia, they surely will be disappointed. The strongest sections are when Black’s overwhelming and often offensive guitar drone cuts out and his infantry of studio musicians take over. This album lacks the raw power of his past three solo releases, recorded on two tracks with only bass, guitar and drums. Black tries to refine the Pixies sound with country influences, but the pedal-steel guitar and church piano grooves clash with Black’s endlessly recycled surf-guitar riffs.
Dog in the Sand also lacks the pop sensibility and wit of Black’s earlier work. His guitar lines are repetitive and lack any direction or development. The key changes he forces are turbulent and ineffective. And his once-clever lyrics have degenerated into incomprehensible absurdity.
In the title track, he flaunts his ability to nearly rhyme, singing “If your heart is sad/ Give your dog a bone/ See her in the sand/ This is your new home.”
The only glimmer of hope and humor is in the eighth track, when he screams, “Hermaphrodites is my name/ Worship me.”
So what have we learned from this contrived evolutionary metaphor? Context takes precedence over intrinsic musical merit. Now that the musical gene pool is saturated with indie-rock bands trying to capture the Pixies’ sound, Black’s attempts to recapture his own sound are ordinary and unimpressive. Revolutionary groups lacking the timeless appeal of the Beatles, like the Talking Heads, the Velvet Underground and the Pixies, only have a few years to get their point across.