Frank Black and the Catholics

The older Frank Black gets, the less he sounds like himself, which probably happens to everybody at some point. But ever since Pudge let his monkey go to heaven, he flat out refuses to scream at traffic anymore -- or at the powers that be. He's like a tired, prospectin' punk gone back to the land. Monkeyless. Content to dig and to mumble.

This is music for wide-open spaces: steel harps, dobros, and a jingle of spurs in imitation­Aaron Copland majesty while Mexican kids throw rocks at dogs. On your left you'll notice the indigenous purple flowers of mescaline ("Llano del Rio"). Truck stop living in these parts can go on for miles. It's accessible scenery, though, with an occasional scorched bone thrown Joey Santiago's way ("Robert Onion," "Dog in the Sand"), plus Frankie boy's usual understated, overflustered, cliffhanger song-logic. Just a word of caution, bookworms: Don't expect more than one-fourth of what you loved so much about the Pixies' reckless Boston approach to Ivy League punk. Expect wit as dry as widowhood. Country manners. And bring a sandwich.

"Blast Off" sounds like Lou Reed and Dr. John discussing chemicals over weak coffee. "St. Francis Dam Disaster" tests the theory that water seeks its own level. As always, when Francis lets his Black Irish get the better of him, it makes for better storytelling, like that one where the guy waits for the other shoe to drop just so he can pick it up and kill something. Captain Beefheart accomplice Eric Drew Feldman infects both piano keys and Clavioline -- from '50s sock hop/slow dance ("Stupid Me") to cubist blues and beyond. Along the way Frank looks for Aldous Huxley and finds the ghost of Johnny Horton. He tries on Samuel Beckett's pants. And he even turns into a dog. What else could go wrong? Plenty! A little fella named Hermaphrodito runs around, making a nuisance of herself.

Maybe if finding meaning in the desert is possible, it has something to do with never having to say you're thirsty. Or tired. Or lost. Or too stubborn to ask for directions... or what those buzzards up there are doing.

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