You’ve likely not arrived at this review by accident. Perhaps Charlie Thompson’s (aka: The Pixies’ Frank Black / Black Francis) name changes, middle-age nostalgia-tripping and country dalliances haven’t yet fully put you off? Or maybe Reid Paley’s longtime indie rep, non-commerciality and more-than-homophonic parallels to underground godfather Lou Reed have drawn you in? Either way, many indie fans have had Paley & Francis on their “probably should check out” lists for some time now.
Paley & Francis – the album actually isn’t the first time Paley and Francis the musicians have worked together. Francis produced Paley’s 1999 effort Lucky’s Tune, and Paley has written with and opened for Francis a number of times over the past decade. But Paley & Francis does seem the first time the pair have approached things as equals, with the workman-like rockers dividing up the finishing of 10 accumulated song snippets – five apiece – during a brief layover on a recent Pixies tour. Given that both are fairly dark writers, the even split is not as contradictory (nor complementary) as other half-half albums such as the Go-Betweens’ classic 16 Lovers Lane. But while we are comparing albums, I should note that the short timeframe – only three days start to finish, according to Paley – has yielded far better results than other similarly-hurried mashups (Note to editor – reference to Lulu encouraged here) (Note to writer – Ha! – Ed.).
That being said, contents are pretty much as expected: two indie, solo, deconstructed, and somewhat disheveled guys, occupying that part on the spectrum from angry-and-disillusioned, up through mild-tempered, and once-in-a-while-optimism-considering-the-circumstances. It’s more grey vs. dark grey than a study in high contrast. And with Paley registering as darker than Francis. Most of the songs are pretty stripped down and straightforward, so if you like your four chords/four measures verse/chorus/verse/chorus constructions, you’re all set.
For song highlights, there’s the lyrically interesting Nick Cave-ish “Curse,” and the first song to ever make me think of both Jad Fair and Exile On Main Street, “Magic Cup”. A lot of the songs have that “other” feel including Paley’s “On the Corner” which reminded me of Tom Waits hanging out with Sesame Street’s Joe Raposo, while “Crescent Moon” basks in Neil Young-ish overtones. This may be due to production and backing tracks that come courtesy of legendary Muscle Shoals pianist Spooner Oldham and bassist David Hood, who have backed Young for years. The tunes where they support the basic guitar work of Paley and Francis with additional layers are the album’s most listenable, though to be fair, experienced musicians like that can wash away a lot of sins.
For Francis fans, Paley & Francis is a decent effort, though not hitting his highest solo heights, and if you’re already in Paley’s corner, this won’t change anything for you. But if you’re looking for deeper meanings, longer-lasting songs or melodies or performances, you may feel a little let down. Hopefully next time these guys will have more than a long weekend to put things together, and then I think the results will be even better.