RECORDS / Black comedy, low down blues

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Frank Black - Frank Black (4AD CAD3004CD)

This splendid first solo album from Frank Black - aka Charles Kittridge Thompson III, aka Black Francis, Pixies' frontman and songwriter - eschews the frequency of exhilaration achieved in his band work for the more outre diversions afforded by his new persona. This Frank Black is an oddball in the vein of David Byrne, eccentricity filtered through an engaging pop sensibility - though there's a primitive side to his aesthetic which mirrors the likes of Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu. Fittingly, his co-producer here is Eric Drew Feldman, who's worked with both, and presumably knows what to expect from a chap singing complete nonsense with complete conviction.

The album apparently started out as a collection of cover versions, but has ended up boasting only one, a cheery fuzz-guitar stomp version of The Beach Boys' 'Hang on to Your Ego', the Pet Sounds out-take which best captures Brian Wilson's fragile frame of mind at the time. Of Frank's own state of mind, little can be deduced from original songs like 'Fu Manchus', which is about growing a moustache like the fiendish Oriental's; or 'Places Named after Numbers', which might be a love song or might be about black holes. The modulation from sci-fi fantasy to apocalyptic prophecy in 'Old Black Dawning' is a familiar echo of Frank's Pixies work, but that group would never allow the campy Glitter Band swagger to the sax riff on the instrumental 'Tossed'.

Like Byrne, Black exults in the possibilities of American music: a lot of his songs rely on a big 'why not?' factor, and benign indulgence on the listener's part which usually pays dividends. The chords and progressions in 'Ten Percenter', for instance, probably won't be in the Bert Weedon book, but the book is probably the poorer for it.

David Baerwald - Triage (A&M 395 392-2)

For David Baerwald, America's possibilities have run into a brick wall. Triage - the title means 'sorting out' or 'cutting your losses' - features this highly articulate songwriter's view of the American dystopia. He's well-equipped for the job, having once been half of David & David, whose belated attempts at developing the Steely Dan formula of cynical supposition allied to sophisticated music brought a modicum of cult status a few years ago. Perhaps significantly, the photo on the rear sleeve of Triage echoes the front of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly, but with the 'New Frontier' ambience curdled.

There's nothing you can tell Baerwald about his country that would surprise him. That's how he can write a song like 'Secret Silken World', which applies a Fagen-style atmosphere to a vignette of corrupted Californication souring into sadism. (Baerwald's friend Joni Mitchell is said to have advised against recording it, on the grounds that it was too sordid.) But this is just the first of a numbing litany of complaints which sees the songwriter going from appalled indulgence, through rejection of corruption, to an attempted rebuilding of self-respect from basic moral bricks. The CIA/cocaine connection (viewed in 'Nobody' through the eyes of a cop clearing the gang-war bodies from the street), the soured Big Chill retrospections of 'China Lakes', and the drunk father of the Dylanesque country-blues 'A Bitter Tree', are for Baerwald all rents in the fabric of American morale, whose combined effect leaves it in tatters.

If that makes Baerwald sound too much like an American Matt Johnson, that's certainly true in part. The music is of another order entirely, however, especially the arrangements, which mingle smoothly layered textures with furious nihilist rants and wracked country blues. And if the album settles rather disappointingly, at its conclusion, for the usual redemptive recourse to love, at least Baerwald takes the hard route there.

Philip Glass - 'Low' Symphony (Point Music/Philips 438 150-2)

After the mismatch of Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet, this Philip Glass symphony based on three tracks from David Bowie's Low offers an indication of the way in which rock and classical musics - the oil and water of the aural sphere - can work together successfully.

There are ironies aplenty here, not least that of a one-time minimalist covering music written by two Europeans working under the minimalist influence; in view of which, it's odd how very American Glass makes these three pieces sound. They burst with a Big Country optimism, opening up realms of hope and promise rather than the mired-in-the-gloom and sterile beauty of the originals. It serves to remind us how artistic movements such as minimalism are rarely free from more local emotional preoccupations. In this case, the result almost reclaims the spirit of the originals.