Frank Black & The Catholics – Snake Oil (Vinyl)

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The word ‘prolific’ doesn’t really do Frank Black & The Catholics justice. During 1998-2003 the band released six studio albums (plus recorded one which remains unreleased) alongside a punishing touring schedule that included the usual round of press backslapping and radio sessions. It is from the eye of this tornado that compilation album Snake Oil is culled, and finds Frank Black & Co paying homage to some of their favourite artists and tracks by way of ten specially selected cuts, including B-sides and other curios.

As anyone familiar with Frank Black’s musical lineage will testify, the sheer depth and breadth of his musical influences are mind-blowing. From folk to the progressive sounds of Emerson, Lake & Palmer to traditional Latino sounds via Christian rock legend Larry Norman, his music education has been truly catholic. Lyrically too, he’s drawn on ideas as varied as Biblical violence, surf culture and science fiction, and as you’d expect from such a smorgasbord, his sound has been consistantly surreal. Such a background has informed his choice of covers and first up is a throat-shredding run through of the Reid Paley Trio’s ‘Take What You Want’. Frank has history with Reid Paley (the two collaborated on the 2011 album Paley & Francis (reviewed (here)) and he treats this cover with the respect it deserves by rocking it up for the new millennium, whilst simultaneously retaining a ‘70s schmooze. This is an album that certainly keeps you on your toes and a version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Belle Isle’ (originally from his 1970 album Self Portrait) amps everything up to 11 and comes bursting from your speakers as if The Catholics are jamming right in your living room.

A good cover version shouldn’t be a facsimile (if you want a note for note perfect rendition, why not just listen to the original?), the artist should impart their own personality on the track and shape it into a new form. That’s precisely what Frank Black & The Catholics do on each of these ten tracks, and no more so than on The Specials’ ‘Do Nothing’. Putting an American hardcore slant on this quintessentially English ska track might be an anomaly to some, or it might be the greatest thing you’ve ever heard, but the point is Frank Black takes it by the scruff of the neck and shakes until all the coins fall out. Snake Oil is the type of album that continually throws up surprises and one such delight is Springsteen’s ‘I’m Goin’ Down’. A cut from The Boss’ gym rat period is the last thing I expected (from Nebraska, sure, but Born In The USA?) and it is such treats that’ll have you returning to Snake Oil over and over and over again. As we flip over the 140g vinyl we’re greeted by covers of the Stones, Dylan (again!) and a thoughtful play on Donovan’s ‘Sleep’ to ensure that Snake Oil will haunt your dreams for a long time to come.

Having covered dozens of tunes in his career, it must have been hard to whittle down this set to one slim volume because Snake Oil could easily have been a double (or triple) set. But hopefully a second volume will be dropping soon.

Track List:

Side A:

  1. Take What You Want
  2. Belle Isle
  3. Some Things (I Can’t Get Used to)
  4. The Big Hurt
  5. Do Nothing
  6. I’m Going Down

Side B:

  1. Down In The Hole
  2. Snake Oil
  3. Changing Of The Guards
  4. Sleep

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