Cooking Vinyl – 2002

The former Pixies frontman has now released five albums with his backing band, the Catholics, which remarkably is the same number as with his former charges. These two albums continue Black's move further away from the quirky guitar-driven sci-fi pop of his old group and the three solo albums made without the Catholics, towards a more trad-rock rootsy approach. That's not to say Black is becoming more mainstream - he remains some miles to the left of the likes of Tom Petty - and this pair of records shows he is happy to operate in the margins.

Maybe it's a simple lack of ambition, but on this evidence, the wilfully uncommercial decision to release two albums on the same day smacks more of an songwriter unable to identify his best songs than the statement of artistic intent delivered earlier this year by Tom Waits (whose Black Rider is twice covered here). It's a pity, because fans who endure the loyalty test will find much to enjoy. The trademark scream may be long gone, but these 31 songs are shot through with his typically off-kilter tunes and surreal wit.

Highlights on 'Black Letter Days' include the extraordinary '1826', which starts out as a furious rocker before mutating into an extended Stonesy jam; the falsetto 'I Will Run After You'; and the epic, multi- sectioned tribute to 'Jane, the Queen of Love', who apparently "makes bumblebee love". Too many of the songs feel underworked, however, and the set lacks the cohesion of 2001's return to form, 'Dog in the Sand'.

Although 'Devil's Workshop' has a more digestible eleven songs to its companion's 18, it still suffers from a surplus of forgettable tunes. 'Whiskey in your Shoes' is little more than a great title, while others like 'Heloise' or 'Modern Age' could do with some of the old Pixies fire. In its favour, it does have two of the finest songs of Black's solo career: 'His Kingly Cave' is a marvellously spooked account of a trip to Graceland, while 'Velvety' places Surfer Rosa-style vocals on top of an old instrumental Pixies B-side with stunning results.

With no major label whip being cracked and finally comfortable with the legacy of the Pixies, Black is clearly enjoying the artistic freedom. He has assembled a crack band which can record live straight to his two- track studio, and it seems like he could bash out records like these every three months. Sometimes less is much more though: a great single album is bursting to get out here. Musically and commercially, a reduction in work rate and an increase in discipline would be more likely to help Black recapture former glories.

Greg McKevitt

Devil's Workshop Tracklisting: Velvety - Out Of State - His Kingly Cave - San Antonio, Tx –Bartholomew -Modern Age - Are You Headed My Way – Heloise - The Scene - Whiskey In Your Shoes - Fields Of Marigold

Black Letter Days Tracklisting:The Black Rider # 1 - California Bound - Chip Away Boy - Cold Heart Of Stone - Black Letter Day - Valentine And Garuda - How You Went So Far - End Of Miles – 1826 - The Farewell Bend - Southbound Bevy - I Will Run After You - True Blue – Jane, the Queen Of Love - Jet Black River - 21 Reasons - Whispering Weeds - The Black Rider # 2