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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Absurdist Black Meets Straying Doe

March 09, 1998|JENNIFER VINEYARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — It must be a curse to be influential. As one-time leader of the far-reaching Pixies (read: critically acclaimed but virtually ignored in the stores), Frank Black embarked on a critically acclaimed but virtually ignored solo career in which he's lost not one but two major record deals.

And though his new album with backing band the Catholics is in the can, Black has been unable to get the tunes released stateside; they'll be available overseas in April. This hasn't stopped him from touring as if a release were imminent, hence his stop with the John Doe Thing on Saturday night at the Galaxy Concert Theatre.

A radical departure from the fractured, obtuse rock on his most recent record, "The Cult of Ray," Black's new material churned twister clouds of guitar-driven rock, the rapid-fire rockers nodding to his days in the Pixies, when he went by the name Black Francis, as well as to the raw power of '60s garage rock. Poppier than the Pixies, Black & the Catholics took fewer left turns musically while still maintaining a sense of the absurd.

Eyes closed, bald head gleaming with sweat, Black melded the old, such as the early-'90s hit "Los Angeles" and "(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain," with the new (the dark, resigned "Solid Gold" and the bouncy "Steak 'N' Sabre" were highlights).

During the focused thrash of Larry Norman's "Six-Sixty-Six," Black invited John Doe to join him on vocals--"because he's the real thing, P-U-N-K!" Not only did Doe, for once, look as if he actually enjoyed himself (singing solo seems to be a chore for him), but he also danced--something he wouldn't dare do with his oh-so-serious X or solo work.

For his part, Doe strayed from his typical raw, country-goes-punk trademark to a sound that's a near cousin of R.E.M.'s. Though Black lauded Doe's punk credentials, Doe revealed another side, perhaps as a bid for accessibility. Problem was, it just wasn't catchy, with no hook/chorus bits in sight.

Halfway through his set, as if realizing he needed to make more than background noise, his band, which also included former Big Drill Car bassist Bob Thompson, veered toward a harsher feel, but the intensity, too late in the coming, was for naught. If only he could take a lesson from his dancing days, John Doe might be able to delight instead of distract.

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