After the speedy opening romp of Pong/Thalassocracy (detailed here in Part 1), Black pulls back a bit for the next four and unwinds. The pace slows down towards “amble” and even approaches “truly laid back,” which could easily be mistaken for “coasting,” if he weren’t only six songs into a 22-song set.
3. (I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain.mp3
An ode to wanting to be elsewhere, which is one of those vague feelings that gets under the skin like nostalgia, only with generally better results. You can’t go back. Nothing is like you remember it. However, with the right sort of wanderlust you can push forward. (Although, unfortunately, nobody ever really trusts a drifter.) Frank says “this town is dead to me,” only using better wording and imagery.
I’ve had it with this town
I never saw those shifting skies
I never saw the ground
Or the sunset rise
A bit later, he hints at the antagonism that lies underneath the unfocused (more omnidirectional than vague) “let’s blow this joint” emotion:
I’m building a frame
A place to put my ten-yard stare
But despite all the underlying tension (most of which I’m attributing to it with no assistance from the source material and a lot of self-awarded editorial leeway), the song itself is amiable, catchy and features a couple of tempo shifts, which as the album goes on become more and more common. This would seem to suggest that Frank Black’s new, um, black is tempo changes, replacing all the groundwork laid by the Pixies’ damn-near-patented “loud/quiet/loud” dynamics.
This track remains one of my favorite Frank Black tunes (of ever!), not so much for the tune itself (although it does sport some rather large hooks), but because of the subject matter. There’s a dry and dusty near-Western feel to the lyrics (and the music), but what pulls me in is the border town imagery, illustrated by the Spanglish chorus.
Used to be sixteen lanes
Used to be Nuevo Spain
Used to be Juan Wayne
Used to be Mexico
Used to be Navajo
Used to be yippy-ay-I-don’t know
Note that “Navajo” is pronounced “Nava-joe” in accordance with Black’s bastardization of Spanglish pronunciations. In Spanish, the “j” would be pronounced as an “h” (as in “Jesus”)(also, as in the way that the Navajo pronounce it). Black inverts it completely by giving it the hard “j” (probably not an actual thing, this “hard j” — at least not according to prominent Englishologists), doubling the language tweakery by blowing right past the border English “h” and grabbing onto the imported Americans’ (German, Dutch, etc.) practice of pronouncing letters of “foreign” words in completely the wrong way. No doubt about it: English (especially the American version) is a tough language to glom onto, what with it’s shifting “rules” and incessant borrowing from other cultures.
So, as an immigrant, when you’re tangling with a brand new language and its odd habits of using consonants as vowels and taking sudden hard left turns at certain consonant groups and then ignoring them completely later in the sentence, it certainly doesn’t help that the word “jalapeno” or “Navajo” are part of the vernacular. Which rules do you follow? And why do adopted words seem subject to local accents? As if the whole thing wasn’t ridiculous enough (citizenship tests, et al.), you’ve now got the opportunity to further display your “not-from-around-here-ness” by completely fucking up the pronunciation of a word that shouldn’t even be let across the border without a phonetic spelling. You can’t win.
Black being a denizen of L.A. (and the citizens’ band [BUT LATER ON]), he knows his way around the mishmash (and frequently, mismatch) of blended cultures. He references pachinko parlors and karaoke while namechecking the La Brea tar pits, all the while blending things further with his polyglot chorus.
I can identify.
Growing up in El Paso, Texas, a literal stone’s throw away from Mexico, I knew all about Mexicans. (Of course, no one really uses the term “Mexican” any more. Mexicans = people from Mexico. 20+ years ago, “Hispanic” wasn’t really used much in regular conversation. Mexicans were Mexicans and Hispanics were Mexicans with political aspirations.) The culture that is a border town is (dichotomously) diversity defined, while still noticeably marked by pockets of exclusivity . It all depends on which side of town you’re on. Heading to where the money is, border towns look like inland empires (obligatory Lynch reference, yo). It’s all new money wealth and in-ground swimming pools and white teens with riced-up sports cars and bomb-ass ghetto-fab SUVs.
Head to another side of town and you’re going to need a guidebook and an Spanish-English dictionary. Of course, each side of town is equally authentic and there are a few areas where you see some dithering (a digital term! for no apparent reason!), but generally speaking, border towns are not so much “Oh, Melting Pot!” as they are a somewhat uneasy coexistence of homogeneous cultures.
But authenticity is key. You can’t get real Mexican food without real Mexicans. Ask anyone who’s lived near the border. Trying to find good Mexican food is a fool’s errand in many parts of the country. This fact was plainly expressed in a very short-lived radio ad that ran while I was living in El Paso. It proudly announced that a restaurant had “Mexican food made by real Mexicans.” There’s an underlying offensiveness to that phrase. (See also: the second part of the restaurant holdup scene in Pulp Fiction, specifically Tim Roth’s shouted instruction — “Mexicans! Out of the fucking kitchen!” Even impulsive Brit stickup men knew who was working the back of the house.)
The insinuation is that the Mexicans will never get out of the kitchen, thanks to continued racism and random oppression from the Man and while you may actually prefer to have your authentic Mexican food to be prepared by authentic Mexicans (i.e., the ones most qualified to make native food), you really don’t get to go around saying so in so many words. Hence, the ad vanished, but for my brother and I, it lives on. Forever.
If you could ignore everything else about undocumented workers, etc., it’s actually the perfect tagline. If you heard an ad touting German food made by real Germans, you’d think “Fuck yeah! Bier und Sauerkrauten FTW!” and never once be troubled by the image of fiercely nationalistic young blonds slaving over a hot, authentic Stoverevekkenkerffumuschitteren. But if you use that phrase in relation to any of the so-called “marginalized” races (for the most part, “not white” [although “White-Hispanic” hits all the buttons at once]), you get in trouble. All hail White Guilt.
But enough about le culture, and more about Frank. The track sports some steely guitar and a windblown feel that makes it the perfect summer track. Of course, this track would be equally welcome in winter, especially since the heat of lyrical imagery would be a welcome blast of hot, dusty air during those colder days. You can almost smell the melting asphalt and see the shimmering, “pool ofwater” mirage spreading across the sixteen-lane horizon.
Another song that touches on the ineffable sadness of life not being nearly as magical as it once was. As you go further in life, the number of “unexplained” occurrences drops, replaced with facts and footnotes and the scars left by Occam’s Razor.
More specifically, this is Frank’s lament (as spoken by Fox Mulder’s office backdrop): I WANT TO BELIEVE.
Give me a blip, oh
And I’ll totally flip, oh yeah, yeah
Say it’s nothing but sky
And I’ll be a lonely guy
As to who the titular “Vanishing Spies” are, Black remains coy (or rather, “noncommittal”), but you can’t argue with the wistful quality of the music. Implicitly (through the power of editorial overreach), I’d say the vanished spies are the no-longer-all-that-common alien visitations. When all the mysteries are gone, all that’s left is life that plays out like a shitty street magician, telegraphing all its misdirection and plainly showing its cards. No one wants that. Not you. Not your kids on their 10th birthday. All he wants is for someone to say it’s “possible.” It doesn’t even need to be “probable.” Is that too much to ask?
An unabashed love song, filled with ecstatic imagery. Black goes nearly Shakespearean with Speedy Marie, his ode to his (at the time) wife. Early on, he mentions that he “sings this romaunt.” And he does exactly that.
In the sixth track, Mr. Black’s sings “I sing this romaunt”. A romaunt is a romantic poem. And, sure enough, the song ends with a quite lovely, romantic poem directed to a woman. This last section is written and sung in the classic 14-line sonnet style, with a rhyme pattern of A-B-A-B, C-D-C-D, E-F-E-F, G-G. The lines are actually an acrostic; the first letter of each line spells out “JEAN MARIE WALSH,” presumably the Speedy Marie of the title.
Juxtaposed in each moment’s sight
Everything that I ever saw
And my one delight
Nothing can strike me in such awe
Mouth intricate shapes the voice that speaks
Always it will soothe
Rarer none are the precious cheeks
Is the size of each sculpted tooth
Each lip and each eye
Wise is the tongue, wet of perfect thought
And softest neck where always do I
Lay my clumsy thoughts
She is that most lovely art
Happy are my mind and my soul and my heart
Now that Frank Black has made everything any guy has ever done for his girlfriend/wife/s.o. look like so much underwhelming and non-poetic drivel, I guess we (the guys) have nothing else left to do but punch ourselves in the brain for being cursed with above-average brains (at best) and see if we can somehow shoehorn one of these intricate couplets (my favorite is: “And softest neck where always do I/lay my clumsy thoughts“) into an anniversary card or singing telegram (public domain only I’m afraid — to keep costs down).
Or maybe we can just point out that Mr. Black and Ms. Walsh are now separated, as if that were evidence enough that the amazing amount of effort needed to produce this sort of loveliness is obviously a complete waste of time. Or something.
Also of note: not the first time Mr. Black has gone acrostic. There’s also Ana, which spells out a very simple message… (See the top comment.)
Until next time…