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O.C. POP MUSIC REVIEW : Black Shares His Colorful World : The former leader of the Pixies wanders through other people's archives and his own new works, taking the audience to places unexpected on a melodically accessible trail.

July 13, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Frank Black played pop classics by the Kinks, the Beach Boys and Gene Chandler to round out his set Sunday night, when his first-ever post-Pixies tour brought him to the Coach House. But the show's guiding principal could have come from a documentary on Bob Dylan: "Don't look back."

The former Pixies leader (born Charles Thompson and self-christened "Black Francis" in Pixies days, a name now inverted) could have scored a sure knockout with the near-capacity crowd of 400 or so by playing some nuggets from his old band's song list. From 1987 through 1992, the Pixies were one of the most creative and popular outfits on the college-rock circuit.

It wouldn't have been a tawdry move. Black wrote and sang virtually all the band's numbers and, for further authenticity, his old college roommate and Pixies lead guitarist Joey Santiago was riding shotgun at his side (the reserved Santiago wasted no shots with his spare but apt solos and fills).

In terms of thematic purity, though, Black was wise to make the clean break. Whatever you want to make of the enigmatic lyrics on his album "Frank Black," they're fundamentally concerned with a restless desire for transformation and wonder, a yearning to shatter stasis and escape the familiar.

Relaxed and quipping easily for an audience that was willing to give him his head and not yell for Pixies stuff, Black even offered a visual joke that made a point about the need to confound literal-mindedness and upset expectations: He draped his portly frame in a light summer suit. With his roundness of body and cue-ball head, the garb made him look like a cross between Devo's Booji Boy mascot and Burl Ives as Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

The 75-minute show included all 15 songs from the "Frank Black" album. The renditions stuck close to the recorded arrangements, which feature a full, layered sound (two members of Pere Ubu, Tony Maimone and Eric Drew Feldman, provided much of the aural thickening--Maimone with his wide tone on bass, and synthesist Feldman with his spacious music-of-the-spheres atmospherics).

The show also included three unrecorded instrumentals, one an eerie Latin-tinged number that would have been ideal ballroom accompaniment for Twin Peaks' dancing psychotic, Leland Palmer. It opened the set, prefiguring mysteries to come.

The Pixies' concerts rose or fell on whether the erstwhile Black Francis, always immobile behind his microphone, was able to work himself into a howling psychodramatic lather sufficient to ignite songs that touched on ("about" is usually too defining a word for Black's imagistic, open-ended constructs) death, sexual need, religious guilt and (his perennial favorite) space travel and alien presences.

He did some respectable roaring and growling Sunday night. He clearly amused himself as he screamed the word "jerk" repeatedly at the end of "Ten Percenter," a song that nicks Ted Nugent's "Dog Eat Dog" riff for what seems to be a not-entirely disparaging commentary on no-brainer rock. Black came off like a mad Ahab shouting commands in a sea storm at the end of "Parry the Wind High, Low," which first pokes fun at UFO enthusiasts, then turns into a heroic chantey for intergalactic voyagers.

Most of the Pixies' material was based in fairly simple, aggressive punk, folk and garage-rock sources. Because his new album offers more elaborate structures and frequently emphasizes stately grandeur over slam-bang impact, Black didn't have to scream his lungs out to carry songs like "I Heard Ramona Sing." It was one of several numbers that called to mind the very early Electric Light Orchestra of "10538 Overture," back before E.L.O.'s hits started coming and slickness increasingly set in.

It's indicative of Black's non-linear approach that "Ramona," a fan's tribute to the Ramones, sounds nothing like the Ramones but instead evokes the soaring feeling of being emotionally swept up by music you love.

Since he finds little else in the world as simply perfect as Ramones music, Black's songs mainly focused on turning imperfect things upside down, or on running away from them. In "Los Angeles," which alternated between headlong drive and calmer, yearning passages decorated by Santiago's sighing, arching guitar figures, L.A. resident Black barked a wish for some substitute existence, a parallel Los Angeles different from the city he's stuck with. He pronounced the "g" in Los Angeles like the "g" in angle--as if small changes in speech might be a step toward the larger transformation he wants.

In the end, though, Black wasn't looking for perpetual transformations. In a memorable encore, he sang about just wanting some place where he could feel at home.

He began with a solo-acoustic "Duke of Earl"--a slightly joking but mainly earnest pass at Gene Chandler's demanding 1962 doo-wop classic. Black was vocally underqualified to play the Duke, but there was a certain charm in the attempt.

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