Honeycomb (Back Porch)
by Scott Deckman
With the band that made him famous currently on tour, Frank Black sure found an odd time to release his most un-Pixies record to date. Honeycomb, Black’s paean to all things retro – Southern R&B, roots and country – will likely be the most hit-or-miss album in his ever-growing cannon. And believe me, you can’t get any further away from “Tame” or “Planet of Sound” than this.
Rumored to be titled Black on Blonde, a clever turn on Dylan’s first Nashville record – equally rich and fitting since Blonde on Blonde was an inspiration for Honeycomb – Black wisely came up with a more suitable, and original, moniker. While it’s true that there are a few sterile moments on this record (what do you expect when your backup band is made up of a group of legendary session players including Steve Cropper, Reggie Young, Spooner Oldham, Anton Fig, and David Hood? See: Bloodless perfection), the heart and soul of this formidable songwriter comes out in ways you’d expect. Anyone listening to his records post-The Cult of Ray, and particularly post-Pistolero, will know that alt country and roots rock are terrain he’s increasingly enamored with.
Most artists can’t pull it off, but Black, Charley, Francis, whatever you wish to call him, does. Single “I Burn Today” sounds like it was written by and for Johnny Cash, which is also fitting since these two are peas in a pod, generational left-field artists as important to their fields as Lennon, McCartney, Williams, and Dylan were to theirs. “Space is gonna do me good,” Black crooned on Teenager of the Year‘s song of the same name, and more than anything else, that’s what this record’s got: Space to let the nuanced downhome session greats backing him play their parts like muscle memory.
If he’s Cash on “I Burn Today,” he plays James Carr on the song that made the latter famous, “Dark End of the Street,” the Dan Penn and Chips Moman sweet soul ode that lopes along and’ll get there when it’s good and ready. “Go Find Your Saint” woulda fit in perfect on his last four records (excerpting that Frank Black Francis demo/reworking of favorites curiosity), and a cover of Roy C. Bennett’s and Sid Tepper’s “Song of the Shrimp,” sung by Elvis in the 1962 flick Girls! Girls! Girls!, takes you further down The Bayou. Serious fans will also recognize Doug Sahm’s “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day,” which Black not only previously covered, but named an entire Internet album after a few years back. The record’s strangest song – it would be anyone’s strangest song – is his duet with recently-divorced wife Jean, who, ironically, sounds much more countrified on the album’s most countrified track than Black ever will. And what about his new love, Violet? Yeah, she gets one too, called, you guessed it, “Violet.”
These songs have grit and a lived-in quality by someone who has traveled around a lot, and crisscrossing the country and globe are a big part of what has made Black special in the first place. “Is there a place that you can’t go back to?/Is there a town you can’t even enter?/Maybe there are whole states/You don’t even wanna pass through.” But as these verses from “Atom in My Heart” prove, there may be downsides to spreading yourself around. Traveling, or even better, a feeling of both spiritual and material homelessness, is a major theme on this record. Just check out “My Life Is in Storage.” But it’s the parting shot that Frank saves for his most heartfelt and bittersweet offering. “Sing for Joy” tells the story of several protagonists making the best of whatever life throws at them, whether it be a shot to the head, a divorce, or a simple lack of sugar. “Sing for joy/If nothing else/Sing for joy,” he croons.
Times like these, that might be all we’ve got.