Fast Man Raider Man isn’t your father’s Frank Black; it’s Frank Black for your father. The music’s not always square, but there’s a forced, haggard, Haggard-ness to it that is probably the result of a conceptual error — Black knew what he wanted to do and found himself completely uncomfortable doing it. In 2004, the recently divorced former Pixies frontman headed to the best place to sing about heartbreak (Nashville), lost his Pixies muse and ended up with a whiskey-dipped Honeycomb. Fast Man Raider Man connects leftovers from that session (it should have been marketed as such) with similarly recorded spur-of-the-moment sessions and a revolving group of old men (Steve Cropper, Reggie Young, Spooner Oldham, Levon Helm of the Band, Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick) in Nashville and L.A. Nothing against Tennessee — one of my favorite Pixies tracks is “Letter to Memphis” from Trompe Le Monde — but Fast Man Raider Man is twang for the “Here Comes Your Man” crowd: jarring in context, boring and awkward in practice.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the album is the furious nature of the recording process. All-night, twenty-four-hour continuous rotations would seemingly play to Black’s darkest strengths, but nowhere is the mania indicative of the rushed, exhausting creative process. To the contrary, the album is sluggish and forced, certainly not deserving of such ambitious breadth (two discs, twenty-seven tracks) and neither deserving of the poorly conceived country tracks that constitute the album’s weakest portions (even Honeycomb would have benefited from shedding the Gram Parsons cover “Dark End of the Street”).
The first strike here is the cover of Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town.” Black lays on the country accent thick, and his voice isn’t rich enough, or perhaps in this setting it lacks the confidence or conviction necessary to pull off a memorable, deep country sound. This trend continues through the train-yard soul of “Raider Man,” the pedal steel and embarrassing Parsons-esque spoken moment on “Sad Old World,” in songs butchered by producer Jon Tiven (piano and sax somehow manage to suck the life out of “Fitzgerald”; follow-up “Elijah” had the makings of a Springsteen rocker but screams for backing vocals), to the boring melodrama of “My Terrible Ways” and the flat-out inexplicable (“The End of the Summer”).
But Fast Man Raider Man is not endless, and before the one and a half hours expires there are some really nice pop moments accentuated by Black’s consistent songwriting. The album finds a nice (albeit short-lived) groove in the simple pop melodies and verbal Tetris of “If Your Poison Gets You,” “You Can’t Crucify Yourself,” “Dog Sleep” and “I’m Not Dead (I’m in Pittsburgh).” “When the Paint Grows Darker Still” incorporates the surreal concepts digging against the terrestrial wasteland of “Monkey Gone to Heaven” (there’s a golden trumpet in a landfill), and you will definitely smile when Black asks, “Have you seen me in my gown?” on “Kiss my Ring,” which (clearly) has the album’s strangest imagery.
Apparently Frank Black in his old age is no longer content to express his strangeness in screaming about Cronenberg-ian, anatomical sci-fi (i.e. broken faces and bone machines). Here he mixes jazzy, barroom Nashville tunes influenced more by the desire for shade than punk rock. There is a good album buried somewhere in these twenty-seven tracks, and that album is called Honeycomb.