Lost Albums: Black Francis – Svn Fngrs
No set of songs since Pixies' 1991 LP Trompe le Monde so clearly captures Black Francis’ spirit as Svn Fngrs. It is the blueprint for the Pixies album that never was.
The record barely registered with the music press when released in 2008 and the reviews it received viewed it almost exclusively as a stepping stone to a Pixies record proper. Why waste time analysing the blueprint when the real deal is so tantalisingly close?
Had critics known they’d be waiting another decade for Pixies’ fifth album (2014’s limp Indie Cindy), Svn Fingers would have enjoyed a warmer response. To be fair, by that stage all signs indicated that the band were going to drop a new album at any given moment.
Black Francis released Svn Fngrs at the height of Pixies reunion fever. Since reconciling differences in 2004, the band continued to drop hints about new material. Black Francis – real name Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV – explicitly told me as much in a 2008 interview. He admitted the band had even considered booking studio time while in Australia to headline the V Festival the year before.
Because it is impossible not to listen to this twisted pop song and imagine what could have been.
Thompson’s post-Pixies proliferation had also become something of a joke. Since announcing his band was no more in 1993 the frontman went on to release 17 albums in as many years. Although Svn Fngrs was only the second recorded under the Black Francis moniker – which he shed in the ‘90s for the deliberately banal inverse, Frank Black – it makes some sense that a seven-track LP released less than a year since his last full length, Bluefinger, should go relatively unnoticed.
What makes Svn Fngrs, a mini album recorded in under a week at Francis' house with his wife Violet Clark on bass, Thompson’s most significant post-Pixies work?
Over the course of seven songs Black Francis explores both the fractured tension and darkness that defined the Pixies' sound and the more alt-country leanings of his solo work backed by The Catholics. He strikes just the right balance for the first time in nearly two decades. Much like his newly resurrected punk nom de plume suggested, this was grittier, nosier and more experimental than anything we’d heard from him since the late ‘90s.
Clocking in at a mere 20 minutes, on paper Svn Fingers may appear unfinished. But it is far from it. In an interview with the Village Voice in 2008 Francis admitted he wrote eighth song for the record, but decided to make it a mini album when he realised "the creative energy had completely gone".
As Pop Matters pointed out, "That it’s only a seven song mini-album isn’t a cause for disappointment, in fact it’s somewhat refreshing after years of seemingly unceasing, unedited output from Frank Black."
For the first time in nearly two decades Thompson was showing restraint.
Nowhere is that more obvious than on the track ‘Garbage Heap’, which Pitchfork’s Joe Tangari praised as “the most Pixies-ish thing [Black Francis] done in ages, apart from reuniting with the Pixies”. It is the centrepiece of Svn Fngrs and possibly the best song Thompson has written since Trompe Le Monde. But it is also, somewhat ironically, the record’s Achilles heal. Because it is impossible not to listen to this twisted pop song and imagine what could have been.
The simple four-four drum beat at the start and the driving bass are just begging for David Lovering and Kim Deal to bring them to life. The abstract, twisted guitar lines hover just left-of-centre waiting for Joey Santiago to bend them right out of place. Every review seemed to conclude that, had the Pixies released ‘Garbage Heap’, (perhaps, instead of the listless Shrek 2 reject ‘Bam Thwok’) it may well have been the perfect addition to their flawless back-catalogue.
The second half of the album swings between the punk energy of Pixies and the sweeter pop melodies of Frank Black’s solo work.
While the strange time signatures and demented vocals of ‘Seus’ invokes the essence of Trompe Le Monde’s ‘Subabaculture’, the second half of the album swings between the punk energy of Pixies and the sweeter pop melodies of Frank Black’s solo work. It’s a precarious balance, but one that Thompson gets just right. Especially on album closer ‘When They Come to Murder Me’, on which he wails one of those great distorted Black Francis lyrics, "I was born in a double orgasm!"
In many ways it’s just the kind of experimentation one would expect from the Pixies. Every album they released from 1988 to 1991 was an evolution of their sound. The next record in their catalogue should have been yet another sonic exploration.
Indie Cindy was brimming with the Pixies tropes so many critics said were lacking from Black Francis’ solo releases. But it still fell flat. It sounded too much like a band trying to be who they once were: a parody of their former selves. In comparison, six years on from its release and with the benefit of hindsight, Svn Fingers is one of Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV’s strongest moments on record in over two decades. It’s well worth digging up.
Hear Black Francis' Svn Fngrs in full from 9am AEDT Sunday 21 December on Double J.
Check out the rest of our Lost Albums series:
The Riptides – Tombs Of Gold by Andrew Stafford
Sibylle Baier – Colour Green by Jimi Kritzler
The Cannanes and Steward – Communicating At An Unknown Rate by Megan Spencer
Reverend Charlie Jackson – God's Got It by Dan Condon
Bluetile Lounge – lowercase by Andy Hazel