Back in Black

A fable: Once upon a time (say, 1986) there was a band in Boston called the Pixies. They sounded a bit caustic -- combining roaring guitars and odd rhythms with a love for strong melodies and a kooky sense of humor, often dark. Lead singer Black Francis sang about UFOs, death and human oddities like a weirdo class clown. Kurt Cobain was a big fan. Then in 1992, after making four records and opening for U2 on the Zoo TV tour, the band called it a day. Bassist Kim Deal went on to form the Breeders, who were much more pop and popular. The moral? Greatness is frequently only recognized in hindsight.

What can you do when you have already been in one of the most significant alternative rock bands of the late '80s/early '90s? If you are Black Francis, you invert your name to Frank Black (inspiring the name of the lead character on the TV show Millennium), go solo, write songs which are a bit more straightforward, but keep obsessing about the things which you have been obsessing about for years. His first three post-Pixies records brought him a smaller audience than the Pixies had, but the brief blasts of noise balanced by some delirious pop showed that he had no intention of getting softer and he was still headed down a long, weird road with his own voice guiding him. It was on the third record, The Cult of Ray, where Black seemed to run out of steam a bit.

After a fight with his record label, Black took his next album, Frank Black and the Catholics, to a small British indie label and (more important) to the Internet where it was one of the first albums to be distributed with the artist's permission via modem in the MP3 format. Recorded live in the studio, its rawness recaptured Black's feisty spirit without sacrificing any of the tunefulness. It had a renewed energy and reckless spirit. Inspired, Black has another record coming out in March. Anything Black does is worth hearing, and he is not to be missed live, where he can simultaneously remain nearly motionless and still seem to scorch the air with his rapid-fire song delivery and spitting/ranting way of singing. A bizarre pop icon for sure.

-- David Simutis

Frank Black plays Friday, January 15, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. Reid Paley opens.

Susan Werner -- Singer/songwriter Susan Werner brings her classically trained, corn-fed Iowan voice to Houston in the middle of an extensive U.S. tour to support her intelligent, fiery and funny release, Time Between Trains. Her timing is impeccable, her voice lovely. Part storyteller, part rocker, Werner explores strangely familiar territory where few songwriters have trodden, as with "Old Mistake," an amusing lament about "being the victim of someone who's extremely good-looking," in which she sings, "it was another birthday party / that Tina threw herself / she said that you would be there / so I came armed with someone else." Or the truly virtuosic title track of "Trains," a metaphor for finding balance between the creative, potentially lonely self and the creative, amused, single self: "yes I'm waitin' at the station / with my old friend sublimation / you know the Wright boys designed planes / musta been a long time / between trains." Live, Werner's sharp charisma brings the audience into her world, which is a nice place to be. Susan Werner performs Thursday, January 14, at 8:30 p.m. at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. Tickets are $8. 528-5999. (Liz Belile)

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Liz Belile
David Simutis