Leave it to Frank Black to have his cake and eat it, too: by releasing Honeycomb, his Nashville-recorded collaboration with session legends including Steve Cropper, Anton Fig, and Spooner Oldham, while his reunion tour with the Pixies continued, he could follow his bliss and please his longtime fans. Those who thought Black's later work sounded like the output of a bad bar band probably won't get Honeycomb either, but at least the reunited Pixies should satisfy their longings to hear him shriek about surrealism and incest like he did in the good old days. On paper, Black might not seem like the likeliest fit with Cropper, Fig, et al., but the early-rock roots of the Pixies' mutated surf-punk-pop and the country and roots rock flirtations of his later career suggest otherwise (and "In the Midnight Hour," which Cropper co-wrote, was one of the first songs that Black ever played live). Honeycomb's songs feel tailored to the experience of recording with these musicians in this location, and have a sophistication that Black might not have been able to get with another group of players: the affably drunken "Another Velvet Nightmare" floats by on Oldham's elegantly wasted piano lines, and the band as a whole makes the cover of Dan Penn and Chips Moman's "Dark End of the Street" that much more soulful and genuine. Another cover, Doug Sahm's "Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day," pays tribute to one of the most prominent influences on Black's later post-Pixies work. Yet, despite the homages to his influences, the musicians playing with him, and the very town in which the album was recorded, Honeycomb is one of Black's most intimate collections of songs, and the closest he's come to a traditional singer/songwriter solo album. Even in this more straightforward territory, though, Black's imagery remains unique: "Selkie Bride" places the beguiling sea spirit of Orkney legend in modern times; the woman he's looking for in the title track has "cherry brown lips of maple"; and "Atom in My Heart" mixes straight-up country with science. Like Show Me Your Tears, Honeycomb is a remarkably personal album, and it's still a bit of a shock to hear one of alternative rock's most famously cryptic artists reveal so much about his life in his music. Black's songs are increasingly about coming to terms with life's realities and disappointments, but they end up feeling more liberating than depressing. "I Burn Today" and "Lone Child" carry on with the dancing-on-your-troubles approach of Show Me Your Tears. "Strange Goodbye," meanwhile, is a remarkably cheery postmortem of Black's marriage -- sung as a duet with his soon to be ex-wife, Jean -- that ends up being one of the highlights of his post-Pixies career. Considering that the album was recorded in just four days, Honeycomb is a remarkably strong album, and even on weaker tracks like "My Life Is in Storage," the playing on it always shines. Unlike some of his peers, not only is Frank Black still here, he's making music that isn't just a rehash of his salad days. With the therapy/roots rock of Show Me Your Tears, the disc of Pixies "covers" on Frank Black Francis, and this album, Black proves that he isn't just open to change in his solo work, he embraces it. Honeycomb is steeped in tradition, yet manages to buck it at the same time; while not all Pixies and Frank Black fans will appreciate its mellow maturity, it's an intimate treat for those who follow its lead.
Honeycomb [140g Translucent Honey Vinyl]
(LP - Demon Records / Edsel #DEMREC 893X)