Pixies lead singer Frank Black takes the prize in this year’s derby for Oddest Duet, inviting his ex-wife to sing about their failed relationship on his new solo album.
“Strange Goodbye” is by turns sad, wistful and funny. At a time many couples would barely speak to each other, let alone join voices, Black and Jean Walsh sing about how it’s “funny how we’re laughing through all of these tears.”
Divorce is rarely that simple, of course, and wasn’t in this case. But Black, 40, who has remarried and has an infant son, said they get along “very well.”
Black’s life offered no shortage of emotional material while he was writing for the new album, “Honeycomb.” Besides divorce, remarriage and his first-ever visits to a therapist, he was uniting his old band for the first time in more than a decade.
“There was just something about pain in that time of my life where I was kind of — I’d hate to say it — kind of enjoying the pain,” he said, “not because it felt good, but because it felt good to be human and going through these extreme kinds of emotions.”
The album-closing “Sing for Joy” is a catharsis. As Black croons about unpleasant episodes in his life, it’s clear how music was an important emotional outlet for him.
If the subject matter weren’t enough of a challenge, he chose to leave his musical comfort zone to fulfill a longtime dream. A hero in alternative rock for his quirky, tuneful songs like “Here Comes Your Man,” Black traveled to Nashville, Tenn., to work with some legendary studio musicians. It’s a well-worn path, trod most notably by Bob Dylan. Black even thought about naming the disc “Black on Blonde” (after Dylan’s 1966 “Blonde on Blonde”) before deciding it was too hokey.
Former Wilson Pickett producer Jon Tiven pulled together a band with enough credits to fill an encyclopedia: Stax Records guitarist Steve Cropper; Reggie Young, guitarist on “Drift Away” and many other standards; keyboard player Spooner Oldham, who wrote “I’m Your Puppet” and toured with Dylan and Neil Young; and Muscle Shoals Rhythms Section bass player David Hood.
Just before he was to leave for Nashville, Black learned that the on-again, off-again Pixies reunion was definitely on, so he had only four or five days to record.
He marveled at their professionalism and ability to work with a musician about whom they were probably only dimly aware. Drummer Anton Fig even took the time to go over the lyrics with Black so he knew what the songs were about.
They never needed instructions on where to end a song; they simply let instincts take over, Black said. And, on “My Life Is in Storage,” they were in such a groove that they kept playing for about two minutes after the lyrics had ended.
He acknowledged some initial nervousness about working with such a stellar crew. “But then your confidence and your ego had to take over,” he said.
Surprising Pixies' comebackHe’s spent this summer on the second leg of the Pixies’ reunion tour. For a band that had no real hits and had been defunct since 1992, the comeback has exceeded most expectations.
The Pixies sold out seven straight shows in New York. A four-show run in Los Angeles sold 8,648 tickets, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry newsletter Pollstar. More than 8,000 tickets were sold for a show this month at New York’s Jones Beach.
“I think everyone was surprised,” Bongiovanni said. “I don’t know that anybody expected the Pixies to be bigger today than they had ever been.”
He knows it will sound like bragging, but Black said he wasn’t surprised. The band has always received a lot of good will, and while the music didn’t sell spectacularly, it was steady. The album “Surfer Rosa,” which came out in 1988, was just certified as a gold record a few months ago.
nverting the famous “Dylan goes electric” show at the Newport folk festival, the Pixies will perform their first acoustic gig at this year’s annual show.
“After we get done sort of taking advantage of the good will of the people with the live shows, we’ll either go our separate ways or say, ‘OK, let’s make a record,”’ Black said.
“We don’t want to do it for the wrong reason,” he said. “We want it to be good. We want to make another record that is going to stay in print. We don’t really care about having a hit record. What we care about is having a record that is perceived as a cool record.”
So far, the live performances have distracted the band from any real serious talk about a future, he said.
Does that mean the Pixies, sitting around backstage or in sound checks, haven’t talked about any new creative ideas?
“We never talked about creative ideas the first time,” Black said.