If you put a bunch of monkeys in a room full of typewriters, they’re supposed to eventually produce Hamlet. While that theory is still waiting to be tested, it’s now been proven that if you stick two prolific songwriters in a hotel suite for a couple of days, they’ll come out with a killer LP. Black Francis and Reid Paley have worked together in varying capacities for the past two decades. Paley’s opened for Francis. Francis has produced a number of Paley’s albums. The two have written a slew of beautiful songs together–including “I’m Not Dead (I’m in Pittsburgh)” and “Golden Shore” off of Black’s Fast Man Raider Man. Their first officially titled collaboration, Paley & Francis, comes from only two days of studio recording and a handful of hours writing. These guys put those monkeys to shame.
Sure, anyone could whip together 38 minutes of music in a couple days. The speed with which they assembled these ten tracks–all of which were recorded in single takes and completed before Francis had to report for Pixies performances–isn’t important until you hear them. It’s an excellent album. Paley & Francis is a simple, emotional record that lets each songwriter play to his strengths while supporting the other. Paley retains his heavy, post-punk growl (which he honed in Pittsburgh with his band The Five), and Francis returns to the soft, half-yelling/half-falcetto voice from his Nashville session albums. Their voices clash in a wonderful way.
Their singing styles are juxtaposed right away in the opening track, “Curse.” David Hood’s crawling bass line gives way to their first attempt at harmony: “I’ll have a drink/from your jugular vein.” It’s miss-matched and grotesque, further accentuated by Paley barking “hey!” intermittently. The song, one of their strongest, grabs you immediately and establishes the album’s forlorn tone.
Paley and Francis alternate tracks on the album, a tactic that is simultaneously jarring and refreshing. The second song, a slow burn, bluesy, piano ballad, “On the Corner,” features Paley’s thick, gravely voice in full effect–he sounds like a grizzled 90-year-old war veteran. Many of the tracks feature piano and organ work by Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section member Spooner Oldham. His skilled tickling adds an element of dirty, Tennessee barroom flavor to the album, especially on Reid’s songs. It’s as if you walked into Slim’s bar to smoke a few cigarettes over an icy Budweiser and these guys are rocking out in the corner… possibly behind a cage.
The duo play well together, but I gravitated towards Francis’s tracks largely because I prefer his style of songwriting. Since leaving the Pixies, Francis’s style has evolved from loud indie-rocker to country/folk singer, and his most recent albums have found him settling on an amalgam of the two styles. His songs on Paley & Francis exercise these different sides of his musicianship: “Magic Cup” is a creatively written jangler that could fit nicely on Bluefinger; “Crescent Moon,” my favorite track on the album, is soft and Honeycomb-esque; and “Praise” is another Francis strummer, this time with a saxophone wailing in the background. Even when Francis’s songs veer towards dark places lyrically, his tracks keep the album from being too brooding and bluesy.
If you’re looking for those brooding, rough songs, then Reid Paley’s tracks will do just fine. Tracks like “Ugly Life” and “Deconstructed” are bitter, repetitive (in a good way), and pessimistic. The latter is in line with Paley’s post-punk days, and features a great piano breakout with Oldham. Even “Happy Shoes,” Paley’s closing song, sounds gloomy despite the lyrics telling us all to put on our good footwear and carry on with our lives.
Black Francis and Reid Paley, despite their slightly different styles, both possess the ability to craft great music. The fact that they did such in just a couple days, and in a single take, is a testament to their skill and dedication. Paley & Francis is a quick sampling of both independent musicians and the city of Nashville. These guys could teach those monkeys a thing or two about efficiency.