Frank Black

Honeycomb

(Back Porch/Cooking Vinyl; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 27 July 2005

Honeycomb begs the question of whether an artist can and should be considered out of context. I’m as guilty as any reviewer of having placed Stephen Malkmus’ solo work in comparison to that of Pavement. Was I unfair to The Evens by comparing Ian MacKaye’s newer material to that of Fugazi and Minor Threat? If/when Thom Yorke goes solo, will it be possible to see his music through a lens not tinted by “Paranoid Android” and “Street Spirit”? Does Frank Black want to be known as the guy who sang that song at the end of Fight Club?

Ultimately, I think it’s a futile quest. We always have associations, references and touchstones that influence how we hear and enjoy music. But with Honeycomb it’s an interesting question not just because of the multifaceted nature of Black’s solo career (arguably starting with Trompe le Monde), but also because of the last year and a half of Pixies mania. In that light an album like Frank Black Francis, last year’s misguided but interesting rehash of his Pixies-era material, made sense. It bridged the gap, showing both the young Black at his vocal-shredding best and then at his typical, genre-bending worst (though Two Pale Boys can really be held as guilty for the latter). Honeycomb so clearly distances itself from the work of the Pixies that it practically begs to be seen on its own terms.

To give him the credit he deserves, Black has written some of the best indie-rock anthems and straight up rock songs of the last 20 years. Between his output with the Pixies and his first two solo albums (and a fair bit of his post-1994 material), Black certainly deserves adoration and respect. But what about Black as an alt-country balladeer? First off, you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and that saves this record. Black’s songwriting has always been vaguely obsessed with the dark underbelly of society, and so his choice to make an album of southern gothic songs is almost logical. Almost.

Half the material here's great: “I Burn Today,” “Strange Goodbye,” “Honeycomb,” “Atom in My Heart,” the fantastic “Sing for Joy” and the cover of “Dark End of the Street” (which conjures up images of Black leading a Commitments-style band of unruly Irishmen). With his wry wit and dark humor and skewed sense of beauty, Black takes the alt-country mentality and wrangles up some great session musicians to produce an EP's worth of some of the best country tracks I’ve heard since Lucinda Williams’s Essence.

Half the material here's not: Things go wrong when Black stops trying. Despite the accompaniment of a sturdy bunch (Buddy Miller, Spooner Oldham, Anton Fig and Reggie Young, among others), the leadership of Frank’s songwriting sometimes falters. He does well for the first few minutes of "My Life in Storage," but the lyrics start to feel half-formed, and then a forced breakdown and jammed-out ending ensue. Of the three covers only “Dark End” really works, which is a shame because I can imagine a Pixies version of “Song of the Shrimp” that'd be quite entertaining.

Sequencing doesn’t much help the record, either; the first half lags up until “Strange Goodbye,” Black’s surprisingly charming duet with his ex-wife. The chorus of “It’s a pain to be sure / We were aiming so high / It’s so strange to be saying goodbye” matches the country twang perfectly, and the very nature of the duet makes it especially bittersweet (and all the more appropriate for Black). He also closes with the best song, the wonderfully dark “Sing for Joy,” an ode to alcoholism, murder and marital discontent.

The problem: one can't, and shouldn't, consider Honeycomb a totally unique entity; it suffers both in comparison to Black’s other solo material and on its own decidedly alt-country terms. It’s difficult to find indie rockers who don't appreciate Black’s holler, but they won't get to enjoy that yowling here, and I doubt that they'd be satisfied with this album any more than a fan of Williams, Whiskeytown or Billy Bragg would be. Black will continue to do whatever he pleases (c’mon, Pixies album), and it’d be interesting to hear him continue in this straw-hat-and-overalls vein, but for now it's still a bit too much Show Me Your Tears and not enough Teenager of the Year.