Much has changed in the world of Charles Thompson, aka Frank Black, in the last two years. He’s parted company from trusty sidekicks the Catholics, resurrected meta-hardcore gods the Pixies to unanimous acclaim, and moved from LA to Oregon. Oh, and he got divorced into the bargain.
In amongst all this, Black somehow found five days in which to hole up in Nashville recording his first solo album since 1996’s The Cult of Ray. The result of a long-standing fantasy to make what he calls “a kind of Black On Blonde” in Music City, Honeycomb was cut at Dan Penn’s home-based Better Songs And Gardens studio with a dazzling cast of southern session greats assembled by finger-in-every-pie producer Jon Tiven.
Following in the wake of Jeb Loy Nichols’ Country Soul Revue sessions chez Penn, Black showed up at Better Songs on the eve of the Pixies’ reunion tour, only to feel thoroughly overawed when Steve Cropper, Reggie Young, Spooner Oldham, David Hood and others trouped in and set up their music stands to back a dumpy-looking Bostonian of whom they’d never heard.
If it’s hardly as bizarre as, say, Serge Gainsbourg recording in Jamaica, Honeycomb could nonetheless have backfired badly. Fortunately the sessions went without a hitch, producing an album as soulful as a former Pixie is ever likely to record. Black will never be a blue-eyed soul man, not even when he’s essaying Penn’s (and Chips Moman’s) classic deepie “Dark End of the Street”, yet the former Memphis/Muscle Shoals players’ restrained fleshing-out of his songs suits them well.
Written in early 2004 after Black’s divorce came through, Honeycomb’s songs mull over the pain of loss in the detached, ruminative mode of a Leonard Cohen. “I Burn Today”, “Lone Child”, “My Life Is In Storage” and others stem from both deep grief and therapeutic breakthrough. Cohen’s influence is particular prominent on “Another Velvet Nightmare”, while the haunting title track sounds like it was sung by a laid-back Anthony Kiedis. The overall mood is sad rather than harrowing, but none the less moving for that. Unlikely covers of Elvis’ “Song of the Shrimp” and Doug Sahm’s “Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day” provide light relief. A quietly remarkable record.
By Barney Hoskyns