Frank Black,
(Back Porch/Virgin, 2005)

There's a certain Leonard Cohen-esque quality to Frank Black's Honeycomb album. As with Cohen, Black's vocals have a rough-edged, anti-musicality that calls attention to each song's lyric in a manner that a more polished voice would not. And the lyrics are, for the most part, up to the attention.

Songs like "Another Velvet Nightmare" and "My Life is in Storage" have a harshly poetic flavor -- "Come take a voyage to personal storage. And we will forage leashes for my hounds, my tools for my grounds, speakers for my sounds." But Black has also brought his signature quirky sense of humor to this project, choosing to record a version of "Song of the Shrimp" from the Elvis Presley film Girls, Girls, Girls, and celebrating his love for the seal-like creature from Scottish and Irish folklore in "Selkie Bride" -- "Please, won't you stay awhile, give me your coat. Then we'll fall in love in my boat. You'll be my selkie bride."

Despite the strange and often powerful emotions Black has written into his lyrics, this is a far more musically relaxed outing than Black's work with the Pixies, more Americana than alternative. But then with musicians including guitarist Steve Cropper (Booker T. & the MGs), bassist David Hood (Rod Stewart), keyboardist Spooner Oldham (Neil Young) and drummer Anton Fig (David Letterman Show), Honeycomb was bound to be a departure from Black's Pixie roots.

Honeycomb was recorded in a mere four days in Nashville under the watchful eye of producer Jon Tiven. It was all the time Black had available prior to the launch of the Pixies' 2004 reunion tour. The imposed haste of the studio sessions resulted in an unpolished, improvised recording that lends a refreshing energy to a group of mostly slow tempo tracks. But it also resulted in a homogeneity in the arrangements, and the album bogs down after only a few songs.

"Dark End of the Street" feels like an outtake from a session by The Band, not quite good enough to make the final album. What follows on its heels is a series of mostly unmemorable tracks that fail to distinguish themselves either musically, lyrically or from a production standpoint. The disc recovers somewhat with the title track, "Honeycomb," and its lovely finger-picked guitar lead. And the album's closing track "Sing for Joy" is another strong inclusion, a strange little song with a catchy melody that will have listeners singing along -- "Mama killed a pumpkin, she thought it was a sweet. She put it on the table but it was still meat, she forgot the sugar again."

Honeycomb would have made a solid 6- or 7-track EP. But when one considers that Frank Black is known as one of the great innovators of alternative rock, it's disappointing that this disc simply doesn't have the musical range to be a great album.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
1 July 2006

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