It’s practically an impossibility to write about Frank Black and not mention the Pixies. And I just blew it. Based on the strength of his latest solo release, Honeycomb, the odds of a Pixies-less write-up become stacked in Black’s favor. The album is Black’s first `solo’ effort in nine years (obviously not counting his pairings with the Catholics) and is both a musical departure and a throwback to his solid first solo release. Thrown together in less than a week’s time, just before he went on the massive Pixies reunion tour, Black gathered together some of the best musicians in Nashville to aid the creation of a country / folk album that crosses genres like a musical jaywalker. I’ve had my problems with most of Frank Black’s work over the past ten years, but just as he can bury the past with his ex-wife (on this album, no less), and with his former band, Honeycomb makes the decision to re-embrace Black’s music rather easy.
Opener “Selkie Bride” may not sound like much of a departure for Black as he returns, as ever, to his themes of the sea. The mythological power of the ocean is a recurring theme that never seems to grow tired. The song itself is akin to the U.K. Surf version of “Wave of Mutilation,” a song you know could be an excellent Pixies tune if sped up (as “Wave” was). “I Burn Today” is Black at his most serene, proving that he can perform without wailing and yelping, although that is his signature, it would seem out of place here. “Strange Goodbye” is a duet with his ex-wife which acts as a `we’re okay, we’re still friends’ letter to the couple’s friends. Jean, the ex, takes on the June Carter Cash role in the song, and although not the best singer, the track takes on a sentimental quality that gloss could crush. Other songs roll along on Honeycomb that sound like some of Dylan’s tracks from Blonde on Blonde (Black originally wanted to create Black on Blonde), Van Morrison’s early solo hits, and in my opinion, most specifically like some of Will Oldham’s works as Bonnie `Prince’ Billy.
Honeycomb could easily have been overshadowed by its famous musicians including the legendary Steve Cropper (“In the Midnight Hour,” Blues Brothers, etc.), the duo of Spooner Oldham and Dan Penn (they wrote “Do Right Woman” for gosh sakes!), Jon Tiven (a prolific songwriter), and Anton Fig (probably best known for being the drummer on The Late Show With David Letterman). But somehow Black’s songwriting simply lets these heavyweights add their own touches, flourishes and solos to the existing framework without erasing Black’s imprint. The end result is an amazingly accomplished set of songs for a five day recording session.
After the Pixies broke up, I must admit, even though I was a huge fan, I wasn’t devastated. I felt that they had bookended their career well. I was also quite fond of Frank Black’s first eponymous solo album. I am reminded of that album when listening to Honeycomb. The sweet sounds of “I Heard Ramona Sing,” “Czar,” “Adda Lee” and “Everytime I Go Around Here” have echoes felt on this release, albeit without the Cropper blues guitar solos. Short recording session or not, Honeycomb is probably the best album that Black has released since his Pixies days, and it makes me somewhat sad to think that with all the fervor surrounding what seems to be a never-ending reunion tour and a possible new Pixies album, there won’t be a small venue tour to support this lovely little album. I mean, could you imagine Black touring with these guys in cowboy bars? How cool would that be?
Bonnie `Prince’ Billy- I See a Darkness
Frank Black- Frank Black
Van Morrison- Moondance