Against the backdrop of the recent Pixies tour, Frank Black's latest solo project, Honeycomb, sounds surprisingly mellow. This isn't the edgy, explosive rock that the band Black founded nearly 20 years ago was known for; it's a pleasant, well-executed collection of songs.
Honeycomb was recorded in Nashville at Dan Penn's home studio, Better Songs and Gardens. It benefits from a number of veteran session musicians, including Steve Cropper, the brilliant and influential guitarist in Booker T and the MGs, and drummer Anton Fig, who is part of the CBS Orchestra. The skill and talent of all the performers make Honeycomb almost flawless musically.
Black, who sings and plays guitar on the album, includes mostly original material, but also a few covers. In fact, a highlight of the album is his version of the late Doug Sahm's "Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day." The track sounds like "Brown-Eyed
Girl"-style '60s radio pop in the best possible way. Black
makes the best of sharp lyrics, a key line being: "You'll be the king of what you survive."
Also included are the much-covered cheating-heart ballad Dark End of the Street, by Dan Penn and Chips Moman, which was the theme for a film of the same name, and a song previously recorded by Elvis, "Song of the Shrimp" by Roy C. Bennett and Sid Tepper. These 50s and 60s covers blend almost seamlessly with the original material, and go a long way toward explaining the overall sound. This is an album that you could pop in your mother's stereo and expect little trouble.
Starting the album, the melancholy "Selkie Bride" is somewhere between 60s folk-pop and contemporary indie rock, as if Belle & Sebastian or Rilo Kiley covered Simon & Garfunkel. "Selkie Bride," laid out over Spooner Oldham's beautiful keyboard work and a simple guitar line, features sweet vocal harmonies. The song demonstrates that Black has abandoned the obscurity of some of his earlier work, but continues to use provocative imagery with lines such as: "She melted like honey in the sea."
Some of the songs, particularly "I Burn Today" and the title track. are fairly
straightforward folk-pop. Others, like "Lone Child," draw heavily on the Neil
Young school of rock infused with Willie Nelson-style country. For "Another Velvet
Nightmare," Black lets the gravel in his voice take over, and finds himself in
Nick Cave territory. The song is a bit ambivalent, with its love you/hate you
lyrics. "Today I felt my heart slide into my belly," Frank sings. "So I puked
it up with liquor and I slept right where I lay." Later he pleads: "Oh, please
don't let it end, my nightmare of you again."
Honeycomb allows Black to show off his songwriting, backed as he is by stellar session cats. Individual songs sound familiar because they call to mind performers ranging from Simon and Garfunkel and early Bob Dylan to The Eagles. Honeycomb is a coherent and listenable collection of songs. These days, Frank Black may no longer be leading a musical revolution, but what he is doing is settling gracefully into middle age, making music that can be listened to again and again.