Friday, July 11, 2014

Camden Joy | The Greatest Record Album Ever Told

Camden Joy
The Greatest Record Album Ever Told
Portland/Brooklyn, USA: Verse Chorus Press/Rag & Bone Shop, 1995
47 pp. 12 cm., staplebound
Edition size unknown

The other night some friends and I were talking about our disappointment in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and how it might be viewed that each Wes Anderson film is slightly less compelling than his previous (if you start with Rushmore, not Bottle Rocket, and if you ignore Darjling altogether). This notion of a body of work producing diminishing returns consistently was first suggested to me by a customer at a record store where I once worked. He maintained the Pixies' debut Surfer Rosa was the band's peak, with the follow-up Doolittle a close second, then Bossa Nova, and Trompe Le Monde, all in order of their release. He argued that this continued into Frank Black's solo output, with the self-titled debut the strongest (but lesser than the least of the Pixies) and Teenager of Year another step down from greatness.

At the time Teenager was his most recent record, but if you were on board with the theory (and Pitchfork's recent reviews essentially back it up) Black's subsequent output must surely continue the dip in quality, perhaps at a faster pace.

Camden Joy's The Greatest Record Album Ever Told, published a year after the release of Teenager of the year, argues the opposite; that the record is not only Frank Black's best album ever, but that it is the best album ever. By anyone.

At the time of its publishing Black had left 4AD and the afterglow of the Pixies seemed to be waning. It was before Fight Club's use of Where is My Mind in the closing credits brought the band a new audience and before the many victory-lap reunion tours. It was also before the firing of Kim Deal and the firing of her replacement Kim Shattuck, and before the universally maligned Indy Cindy record. 

With 22 songs it's easy to see how the record was accused of being "patchy" and the sometimes lacklustre pop production didn't help it connect with Pixies fans, despite the inclusion of guitarist Joey Santiago on several tracks. But Headache is almost as good a pop single as anything the Pixies released, equating heartache with cephalalgia ("my heart is crammed in my cranium and it still knows how to pound, how it pounds") and Two Reelers (a passionate defence of violence in slapstick comedy - see also Vic Chesnutt's Merriment) has always been a personal favourite.

The record, apparently still out of print on LP or CD, has been subsequently reevaluated and is now generally considered a high point of Black's solo output, but it is rarely championed to the degree that The Greatest Record Album Ever Told offers"Each song is a compact feast dense as a collapsed star with melodies smushed into more melodies, offering as many varied colors and textures as a Moroccan carpeteria, each track with a thousand choruses, a bunch of bridges, untold verses, impossible guitar catchiness, everything spry and lovely and irresistible," writes Joy, pleading with the reader to proselytize on its behalf. 

We are urged to write to the "Romanov despots" at the record companies to protest Black being dropped from the label: "LETTERS SHOULD NOT BE ACCUSATORY, it is better to assume that the cruel profiteers at 4AD and Elektra are, in fact, willing to seek a remedy for stripping our greatest national asset of his livelihood 'IF' they are properly informed. Please be courteous and send your letter promptly. You may wish--to reassure the badged men in front, given the recent difficulties--to upon your envelope write 'NO EXPLOSIVES ENCLOSED HEREIN but merely things of EXPLOSIVE IMPACT.'"

In Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, author Martin Aston cites a more complicated parting of ways. The shrinking sales disappointed both Black (Charles Thompson) and label head Ivo Watts-Russell, but other factors included Black's jealousy over the success of Kim Deal's Breeders and her closeness with Watts-Russell. Also, his contract simply expired:

“Charles got most of the blame in the press for Pixies’ split, and his early albums got overlooked in the excitement to write about Kim, who was such a popular character,’ Ivo feels. ‘Charles resented that there was so much good will towards Kim and I’m sure it confused him that his solo records never sold anything like Pixies albums. But a solo Bono record would sell much less than U2.”


“4AD had a beautiful thing going with Pixies and my solo thing wasn’t as beautiful,’ [Black] says. ‘How could it be the same? Ivo tried to stay interested, and he flew over to hear what I was doing as I was spending lots of money, so they wanted to make sure I wasn’t completely off the rails.’
In any case, Thompson thinks that his contract with 4AD had already ended. ‘Ultimately, I didn’t live in the UK, so I decided to try my luck elsewhere,’ he concludes. ‘I wasn’t beholden to 4AD, and though I felt bad that I didn’t stay, I had to move on.”

Tensions were further inflamed when Black proposed to follow Teenager with a double album, and sales figures couldn't justify the additional expense. But both Watts-Russell and Black speak highly of each other now. 

Joy's call for action reads as a little over-the-top with the benefit of almost twenty years of hindsight, but the impassioned plea can also be read as "but it's also a commentary on the contemporary state of institutionalized alternative culture, a postmodern parody of the tired tropes of music reviewing", writes the Chicago Reader, reviewing the book at the time of its release. 

Printed Matter has one copy of the book left, for the low price of only $4.00, here.

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