Friday, October 14, 2022

Archive Review: Frank Black’s Honeycomb (2005)

Frank Black’s Honeycomb
When Nashville indie record store owner Mike “Grimey” Grimes told me about sitting in on a Frank Black recording session a year or so ago, the time and setting seemed unlikely. After all, Black was about to launch a full-fledged Pixies reunion tour, giving fans that missed the band the first time around a taste of what all the brouhaha was about in the first place. However, Grimey waxed ecstatic about Black playing with a veritable “who’s who” of legendary Southern musicians in the Music City studio, promising an eye-opening CD as the result of the four-day working weekend.

Frank Black’s Honeycomb

Black’s Honeycomb is the result of those recording sessions, an uncharacteristic collection of traditional songs that incorporate elements of Southern soul, alt-country and roots rock. Fifteen, sixteen years ago, when the Pixies ruled the indie-rock roost with a barrage of amplifier squall, fractured vocals, and discordant six-string work, Honeycomb would have been a radical departure for the American idol known as Black Francis. After nearly a decade and a half of a scattershot solo career that has seen the one-time poster child for alt-rock defiance careen off varying musical styles and styles of vocal delivery, Honeycomb instead serves as another indicator of Black’s seemingly bottomless well of talent.

As stated above, for his Nashville side trip, Black recruited some of the true giants of Southern music to back him in the studio. Among the players on Honeycomb are Steve Cropper, better known for his role in the two Blues Brothers movies than for his groundbreaking guitarwork and songwriting at Stax studios in Memphis; pianist Spooner Oldham, a Muscle Shoals veteran and accomplished Memphis songwriter; and bassist David Hood, an integral piece of the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Throw in well-traveled drummer Anton Fig and guests like Reggie Young, Buddy Miller, and Ellis Hooks and you have better than two centuries of combined musical talent. The whole affair was brought together by noted producer, musician, and songwriter Jon Tiven and captured on tape by legendary songwriter/producer Dan Penn.

The results of Black’s dream project are evident in the songs on Honeycomb. Perhaps Black’s most personal and reflective collection to date, the singer sounds downright wistful at times, many songs alternately both joyful and melancholy. With these topnotch studio professionals behind him, Black delves deep into the realities of romance and relationships, life and death with material that, at times, veers dangerously close to foppish singer/songwriter territory. Black’s collaborators prevent their morose frontman from plunging headfirst into the abyss of self-pity, though, with a loose funky groove, the subdued soundtrack propping up Black’s often somber vocals.

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Black also pays homage to both the players he’s sharing the moment with and to his deep-rooted musical inspirations, covering songs by both Dan Penn and Doug Sahm. On the Penn/Chips Moman classic “Dark End of the Street,” Black plays it straight with soulful vocals and a dark, subtle arrangement that redefine the song in a way that makes it sound like you’re hearing it for the first time. Black has a little more fun with Sahm’s “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day,” capturing a laid-back feel with a bit of a Tex-Mex vibe. Combining a strong set of songs with spectacular musical performances, Honeycomb is an unlikely but welcome direction for Frank Black’s solo work and, like Grimey proclaimed those many months ago, a hell of a lot of fun. (Back Porch Records, 2005)

Review originally published by Alt.Culture.Guide™ zine

Find the CD on Discogs: Frank Black’s Honeycomb

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