Originally written April 2012, edited and revised May 2016.
Ah, the challenges of being a legend.
Frank Black, aka Black Francis, achieved that dubious status as frontman for the Pixies, who opened the pathways to grunge and other alternative forms of rock while creating music that was delightfully not Duran Duran. Kurt Cobain identified them as a major influence, and as we all know, the words of a dead guy have ten times the weight of a live guy, so our Pixies became influential, along with their recognized leader.
After the Pixies disbanded in the early 90’s, our influential hero hung out with The Catholics for several years, then reunited with the other Pixies to give the aging late-80’s/early 90’s generation something to take with them into their golden years. In the midst of all this activity, he and his wife, artist and musician Violet Clark, collaborated to produce music under the moniker of Grand Duchy. Their first effort, Petit Fours, was sort of a let’s-try-this-out-and-see-if-it-works effort, and on that level, it worked well enough—certainly well enough for a second go-round. We had to wait three years for that go-round, but hey, they were raising five kids between them, so give them a break!
It was definitely worth the wait. My initial reaction to Let the People Speak was “This is a fun album,” and I never use the word “fun” in polite company. What happened was that as the album moved from song to song, I found myself smiling with delight so often that “fun” was the first thing that came to mind. The connotations of that word are so Disney-esque that I had to find another way to describe my experience.
Let the People Speak is a great fucking album!
I want to emphasize that word, “album.” One of the great downsides of downloadable tracks is that albums can be sliced up like deli ham into thin disconnected pieces of the original. Fans of Radiohead were justifiably outraged when iTunes put out a greatest hits (?) collection, and face it, Sgt. Pepper is much more satisfying in its full, original glory.
This is true of Let the People Speak, for three reasons. The album is structurally unified through the appearance of Jonathan L, who plays the role of DJ-as-narrator, introducing or wrapping up all the songs in DJ speak while poking fun at the pretense attached to influential status, be it “Warholesque” or “Downtown Manhattan.” The track order is exceptionally strong; the music never feels repetitive. And finally, though there is a heavy emphasis on electronic sound (which has already offended Pixies purists), there are enough refreshing shifts to natural sound when your ears need it, as in the electronica-acoustic shift from “White Out” to “Where Is John Frum?” or from the thumping “Shady” to the accordion-like sounds of “Annie Bliss”.
The greatest difference for me between Petit Fours and Let the People Speak is the confidence, certainty and intensity in the arrangements and delivery. Violet Black steps up big time, making this clearly a work of two talented equals. I love her defiant smart-ass snap vocals on “See-Thru You” and “White Out,” her disco-punk flip on “Geode,” her electric earthiness on “Illiterate Lovers” and above all, the sheer range of sweetness and dissonance on the album’s centerpiece, “Dark Sparkles and the Beat.” When Violet is more in background, she still stands out; I have had her voice belting out “Silver Boys” in my head for a week now.
Frank gets plenty of turns at the plate, too, and delivers with equal commitment, particularly on the kick-ass “Shady,” spiced with Violet’s counterpoint laughter, conversation and harmonies. In contrast to his deep-and-sexy “Shady” voice, his vocals on the aforementioned “Silver Boys” are so reminiscent of Howard Kaylan of The Turtles that I expected him to end the song with a little snatch of “Happy Together.” It is very apparent that these two had a lot of fun making this recording, lots of tongue-in-cheek moments, playful . . . yes, fun!
I’ll end this review with a Moron Identification Alert. A particularly childish review of Let the People Speak was published on Pitchfork by a moron who goes by the name of Ian Cohen. He hated the album, whined that the songs were too long for his 3-minute brain and bemoaned all those unnatural electronic sounds. He reveals his underlying infantile bias and his dogmatic purist zealotry in the following quote once he’s done bashing the couple’s “self-indulgence.”
“If you’re responsible for Doolittle and Surfer Rosa and Trompe Le Monde, you’re beholden to a certain set of expectations.”
What an asshole. Hey, Mr. Superior, get your head out of your late-80’s ass and give people a chance to become who the fuck they want to be rather than who they were when you were an adolescent loser preparing for your future as a judgmental whiner. If you were ruler of the universe, we’d be listening to “Where Is My Mind: Variation No. 2176.” Fuck your expectations: they are chains that bind the artist to lifetime of fan-coddling repetition.
And by the way, Violet Clark was responsible for half the album and she wasn’t around for Surfer Rosa, you sexist jerk.