Thank God Frank Black doesn’t listen to his critics.
He didn’t listen to those who told him not to reform the Pixies. As a result, the generation that grew up with the band was given a final hurrah and the younger fans witnessed the four stand-stills and realized a band’s stage presence can exist solely through the strength of its songs.
He didn’t listen to those who told him throughout the years to stop making solo/Catholics records. As a result, Pixies fans have a handful of mediocre albums that’ll never be as good as Surfer Rosa or Doolittle, and they now have one rather impressive solo effort, Honeycomb.
With plans for the initial Pixies reunion dates looming in his near future, Black jetted off to Nashville to spend four days in the studio with producer Jon Tiven (Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Robert Plant) and a slew of seasoned veteran musicians, including Reggie Young, Anton Fig, Spooner Oldham and Steve Crooper. Honeycomb emerged from these brief but fruitful sessions as a unified album of Americana-tinged tracks that at times sound like nothing you would ever expect of a man who’s spent the past months with his face coated in eyeliner, screaming “It’s educational” to audiences across the world.
Black originally intended this release to be called Black on Blonde in tribute to Bob Dylan’s Blond on Blond, which has served as a muse throughout his career. Honeycomb is miles away from where Blonde on Blonde was for Dylan, but it does reside in a similar abode, with its emphasis on solid songwriting and musicianship that supports the songs rather than takes control of them.
The opening threesome — “Selkie Bride,” “I Burn Today” and “Lone Child” — establishes the tone that this is a side of Frank Black fans have rarely seen. The music is restrained but skilled, his vocals delicate but impassioned. And when he sings verses such as, “She said our fun its time has come/ hold my heartstrings and have yourself a strum/ no nevermore this song we will play/ I burn today, I burn today,” I feel his pain. His words hang in my mind long after the song is finished. But Honeycomb is not a forced therapy piece like Show Me Your Tears. The album is more the sound of Black honestly harnessing his inner turmoil with slight smirk of confidence and the support of some of session work’s finest players.
Given the strength of the album’s beginning, the latter half lags quite a bit, but the occasional highlight arises. Black cheekily duets with his ex-wife on “Strange Goodbye,” which touches on the couple’s somewhat amicable demise, and he ever so slightly infuses Pixies-style phrasing on “My Life in Storage,” which actually loses most of its fun when the end slows for a boring guitar solo that lasts about two minutes too long. Toss in a forgettable too-close-to-James-Taylor-for-comfort cover of “Dark End of the Street,” and Honeycomb is far from a perfect album. But when Black’s songwriting is on it’s dead on. That more than makes up for whatever filler moments accompany the otherwise stunning songwriting and musical crispness.