Album Review: Grand Duchy – Petits Fours

Frank Black goes by a variety of names. Charles Thompson IV is his given name, and The Pixies are arguably his “given band.” When Ian MacKaye (of Fugazi and Minor Threat fame) decided to start a band with his wife (Amy Farina), he wasn’t simply blinded by his love for a semi-talented spouse. The Evens produced a couple highly decent LPs (The Evens in 2005, and Get Evens the following year). So, what about Black’s new couple-endorsed outfit, Grand Duchy?

Unlike Farina, Black’s wife, Violet Clark, is a marginal singer at best. It sounds like she really liked what she heard when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs first burst onto the scene, and after acquiring the arguable ‘Godfather of Alt Rock’ (in Black) it seemed she wanted to try her hand at delivering feminist-driven shriek.

Only, her pipes aren’t nearly as polished as Karen O’s. Her thin vocal tonality limits the range of the album’s reach. It’s too bad because many of these songs would have sounded more robust with a more truculent female vocalist. Black’s orchestration often calls for a bearer of both goodwill and devilish tendencies, and it seems that producer Eric Feldman likely migrated to the effects pedal to extract what he could from Clark’s mild-mannered bark.

On “The Long Song”, we are greeted with a bassline reminiscent of the days before grunge that gets your head popping. The brief belief that it’s Pixies’ bassist Kim Deal’s masterful work proves false when we hear the lyrics lazily uttered over a song that stylistically demands more from its front person. It’s as fantastically bombastic a musical number as Black’s ever produced, but some songs only carry as much weight as that of he (or, in this case, “she”) who sings it.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe there’s something I missed in my multiple listens. Petits Fours delivers a number of quality songs, but I couldn’t get it out of my head that Clark’s waif-ish voice couldn’t shoulder the load. Remember how amazing Karen O sounded when her voice first shred throughout Nick Zinner’s gut-you-from-the-inside guitar licks? She almost made you forget you were hearing a proper rock song. When Clark opens her mouth, it’s almost as if you want to turn her monitor down, and reel at the prospect of how amazing the songs are in a structural sense.

I tried. I did. I gave it three or four entire listens. It didn’t matter. I found my mind wandering whenever Black’s wife insisted upon mentioning anything. The lyrics were lost on me. The only thing that mattered were the punch-you-in-the-face-for-no-reason intros, and then I’d zone out.

On the album’s best song, “Black Suit”, Black fittingly takes the vocal reigns, drives us mad with his signature snarl and all is right in the world again. He sounds like his pipes have aged well and his voice packs as much punch as his ever-growing paunch. Clark adds the right amount of vocal spice as the background vocalist, and this is where we learn that this is how her efforts could have been best utilized.

This is not a record I’d recommend for casual fans of The Pixies, or Frank Black and the Catholics. Though it occasionally instigates a bop-our-head intuition, it’s lack of a true vocal leader renders the album a collective shortcoming.

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Petits Fours


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