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The Haul: Frank Black's Teenager of the Year

I don’t know if this still applies, but I’d searched for “Frank Black LP” enough in the last year to get “Jawbox” and “Lungfish” as related queries. Countless auctions had been pushed out of my price range before my minimum bid finally stood this time. The “Congratulations, you’ve won!” update from eBay was a genuine surprise. It should’ve read, “Despite all odds, you’ve won!”

82. Frank Black – Teenager of the Year 2LP – 4AD, 1994 – $25

Frank Black's Teenager of the Year

Here’s the reality of my writing for New Artillery: Easily 75% of the articles I start writing (that aren’t involved in The Haul or Record Collection Reconcilation, although those suffer from similar inefficiencies) get a few paragraphs, even a few pages in before I lose steam and let them sit until they’re no longer applicable. Case in point: I’d worked on a list of ten non-2008 albums that I first enjoyed in 2008 off and on for a few weeks, almost completed it (1403 words!), and then never polished it off for public consumption. It’s now December of 2009, the publishing date for this year's list. This habit leads to me constantly thinking “Oh, I’ve already written about that album for the site” without actually having published it. Such is the case for Teenager of the Year, an album I grew to love last year and now feel like I should actively avoid discussing for fear of slamming readers over the head with it. But wait! I’ve barely discussed it at all! Time for some timely repurposing of unpublished content! With subtle editorial updates and added commentary!

How it took me this long (i.e., last year) to check out Frank Black’s first two solo albums was beyond comprehension—both of them made the Signal Drench 100, for example, and neither of the Pixies’ 1990s albums did, which raised red flags when I published it—but I imagine the mixed response to his post-Teenager of the Year LPs didn’t help. I’ve listened to his self-titled solo debut more than any other album this (edit: last) year and it’s somehow still divulging secrets. I suppose that my fondness for Trompe le Monde should have foreseen this development, but even that record can’t match the idiosyncratic glee of songs like “I Heard Ramona Sing,” “Two Spaces,” “Tossed,” and my personal favorite “Don’t Ya Rile ‘Em.” Typing out that last title encourages “I’ve been working my way back to sane / It’s coming back to me again / Old navigational ways / Back in time where I belong / They’re playing my favorite song / That whistling meteorite” to echo through my head for the hundredth time this (past) year. Frank Black is now one of my go-to driving around albums.

Unlike his self-titled release, I digested Teenager of the Year in bits and pieces, easily understandable given its twenty-two tracks. I initially stuck to the stretch of “(I Want to Live on an) Abstract Plain,” “Calistan,” “Speedy Marie,” “Headache,” and “Freedom Rock” (I remember listening to a loop of these songs during a June trip up to Maine [editor's note: June 2008), but I gradually pushed further into the album, embracing later tracks like “Ole Mulholland” and “Big Red” as the summer wore on. Would the album be better off with a few of the weaker tracks left off? Possibly, but attempting to bring this tracklisting down to a manageable twelve or fourteen tracks would cut a number of memorable tracks. Whenever I feel ike a song has earned skippable status, some phrase, some melody, some instrumental touch convinces me that the song’s not an indulgence.

This all culminated in a perfect listening experience: driving around LA with Pixies/Frank Black obsessive Jon Mount a few weeks ago (you know, a few weeks ago last December), he commented how appropriate listening to Teenager of the Year would be given our surroundings. Lacking a plug-to-plug audio cable, I plugged my iPod into my Sennheiser headphones and blasted Teenager through the open cups. (“Blasted” is a generous word choice.) Given his knowledge of the album’s collaborators, idiosyncratic lyrical content, and curious changes of pace, Jon could easily record an audio commentary for this album. I’m not at that stage yet, but I’ve certainly inquired on countless oddball California reference (“Ole Mulholland” is full of them). Teenager just keeps on giving.

Such dialogue indoctrinates an album into a “new all-time favorite” status. As The Haul and RCR prove, I listen to plenty of great albums, accept their strengths and note their weaknesses, and then move onto another great album I’ve somehow missed. It’s a restless habit spurned forward by my itch to buy and hear new music. Yet I still find records that remind me of the longer term obsessions of my teen years, when I’d have to listen to a new album for a few weeks, if not a few months, before reinforcements arrived. Among others, Frank Black, Wire/Colin Newman, Cocteau Twins, GZA, Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid, and Mclusky/Future of the Left have fostered such obsession in recent years, and not due to lack of competition. It’s the ongoing recognition that there’s something more to be heard on future listens that excites me the most.

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