- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 21, 2005

Frank Black

Honeycomb

Back Porch Records

Just days before he was to set out on a reunion tour last year with seminal ‘80s hard-core rockers the Pixies, frontman Frank Black holed up in a Nashville studio to record an album that had been germinating for a decade. The project was theoretically titled “Black on Blonde,” a nod to Bob Dylan’s beloved 1966 album “Blonde on Blonde,” also recorded in Nashville.

With his solo band, the Catholics, in tatters, the idea was to record, as Mr. Dylan did, with veteran session musicians. The finished product (“Black on Blonde” being wisely scrapped in favor of the cheese-free “Honeycomb”) sounds simultaneously like nothing Mr. Black has ever recorded and a consolidation of the roots-rock trend of previous efforts such as “Dog in the Sand” and “Black Letter Days.”



It’s under-your-nose intimate, for one thing. Mr. Black eschews Pixies-style shrieking, singing instead in an almost conversational timbre as he wades lyrically through the detritus of a failed marriage and a stack of therapy invoices.

To give you an idea of the album’s emotional whiplash: It’s got an old-school breakup duet — “Strange Goodbye” — that Mr. Black sang with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Jean Black, as well as a Leonard Cohen-style ode to his fiancee — “Violet.” When guitar solos arrive, they come wrapped in the warm Stratocaster twang of guitarists Steve Cropper and Reggie Young.

“Honeycomb” isn’t a country album by any stretch; it rocks with restraint. On the he-really-means-it “My Life Is in Storage” — Mr. Black recently moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Ore. — Mr. Black lets out muted grunts during the chorus, as though he’s winking at the listener who wishes the song could crawl out of its straitjacket for a full-tilt boogie.

No such luck.

The gentle shuffle of “I Burn Today” finds Mr. Cropper recycling curly guitar licks he played on many an Otis Redding record. Muscle Shoals house keyboardist Spooner Oldham’s fingers flicker with taste: He doesn’t waste a note throughout and adds elegant touches to the drink-fueled mood piece “Another Velvet Nightmare” and an aching take on the Dan Penn-Chips Moman classic “Dark End of the Street” (which Mr. Oldham helped make famous with singer Percy Sledge). Drummer Anton Fig telepathically follows Mr. Black’s slashing rhythmic shifts as though the two have been band mates for years.

The songs on “Honeycomb” aren’t Mr. Black’s best, but they more than burnish his credentials as a singer-songwriter. Album-closer “Sing for Joy” is Mr. Black’s self-described “epic”: a surreal tale of romance, murder and broken hearts that affirms the healing power of music.

Mr. Black — he of cryptic phraseology and maritime mythology — meant the song, with its kumbaya chorus, sincerely, which is the most surprising thing on an album full of surprises, most of them pleasant.

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