Call me crazy, but I’m a much bigger fan of Frank Black’s work outside the Pixies than inside. I think it’s because you never know what you’re going to get when Black steps outside the confines of his hugely influential post-punk band. From the experiments in Beatles-esque pop, new wave and surf rock on his earliest solo efforts to the roots-y, country-tinged Black Letter Days (one of two excellent 2002 releases), Black has proven to be a searcher on an intriguing musical journey.
Just before he reunited with his Pixies bandmates for a 2004 tour, Black went into a Nashville studio for four days of sessions that culminated in Honeycomb. He brought along a fairly astonishing group of musicians, including southern soul guitar legends Steve Cropper and Reggie Young and country soul man Buddy Miller. Their talents certainly help raise Black’s lesser songwriting efforts here, but his oddball sensibility also occasionally allows them to stretch in appealing ways.
Cropper’s expert guitar fills underscore the smooth groove of opener “Selkie Bride.” Black’s lyrics, which he says he began to make sense of after consultations with his therapist, are as usual from another universe entirely. “Human form she had/in Crescent City/She showed me her pity/Lucky me,” he intones. His lower register sounds great on tunes like “I Burn Today,” an easy going gallop with a nice touch of piano. “I knew a girl with sad blue eyes/But at the feast I lost my psychic prize,” he offers enigmatically. Co-written with Reid Paley, “Another Velvet Nightmare,” brings to mind Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave. The title track, an oddball little ditty about a bumblebee, is another excellent showcase for Cropper’s improvisational abilities. And Black sings about his move from L.A. to Portland on “My Life Is In Storage.” One of the weaker efforts on the disc, it’s actually two songs grafted together, Beatles-style, which are nearly rescued by an expressive Reggie Young solo.
One of Black’s most straightforward lyrical offerings also proves to be one of the most peculiar songs here. “Strange Goodbye” is a surprisingly jaunty and optimistic tune sung as a duet with his then soon-to-be ex-wife. “It’s a pain to be sure/We were aiming so high/It’s so strange to be saying goodbye/It’s a pain to be sure/We sure gave it a try/It’s so strange to be saying goodbye,” goes the cheerful chorus. Talk about parting on good terms.
There is also a trio of intriguing covers here, including the much-covered “Dark End of the Street,” a tune co-written by Dan Penn, who owns the studio where Honeycomb was recorded. Black’s fragile, soulful tenor doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of Gram Parsons or some of the others who have recorded previous versions, but Young’s guitar work makes it all worth it. Black and company also offer takes on “Song of the Shrimp,” from the Elvis movie Girls Girls Girls (also performed by Townes Van Zandt), and Doug Sahm’s “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day.” Non-essential but pleasant nonetheless.
It may have been the Pixies reunion tour that caused all the commotion –and for those who missed it, there’s a DVD documenting that excursion — but fans of Black’s work shouldn’t overlook Honeycomb. It shows the one of a kind talent still on a fascinating journey and getting some able assistance from some of his musical heroes.