July 22, 2005


Frank Black - Honeycomb.jpg

Edgy, unguarded and worthwhile

Shortly before the start of the Pixies' reunion tour last spring, Frank Black forged what might have been an even unlikelier musical partnership. For his 10th studio album, Honeycomb (released July 19 on Back Porch/Virgin), Black cut a stunning duet with ex-wife Jean -- the wistful, country-tinged "Strange Goodbye," which serves as -- you guessed it -- a reflection on a well-intentioned relationship gone sour. (And you thought it was awkward for him to be onstage with Kim Deal again.)

Consider the track the centerpiece of what would seem to be Black's most forthright album to date (even one-upping 2003's Show Me Your Tears, which contained plenty of songs regarding the implosion of the aforementioned marriage). For someone whose strength during the bulk of his career was belting out vague, off-the-wall lyrics with a manic, mad-genius detachment, the artist formerly known as Black Francis has made quite the transformation over his decade-plus without the Pixies. Lately, each record finds him more unguarded, yet maintaining an air of unpredictability and edginess. It is this dynamic that makes Honeycomb such a worthwhile listen.

Through Black's sharp lyrical depictions of the fallout from a tattered relationship, or the sheer gruff and gloom of his singing on much of this disc, there can be no mistaking that his disillusionment is the real deal. He sometimes states it poignantly, such as, "She said have fun, it’s time has come/Hold my heart strings and have yourself a strum" (from "I Burn Today"). At other points, Black more plainly paints a picture of hopelessness. It doesn't get much bleaker than, "Today I felt my heart slide into my belly/So I puked it up with liquor and I slept right where I lay" (from the starkly arranged downer "Another Velvet Nightmare").

For good measure, Black not only throws in somebody else's song about star-crossed lovers -- "Dark End of the Street" -- but nails that one, too, his sweet, vulnerable delivery enhanced by some subtle elegance on the keyboard by Spooner Oldham (one of a handful of renowned Memphis and Nashville studio pros who lend a hand on the album, including the song's co-writer, Dan Penn). Even a seemingly lighthearted metaphor for being in a state of dishevelment, the poppy "My Life Is in Storage" -- featuring the telling line "Just when you blow it, then you can stow it" -- veers off and becomes a woebegone, confessional ballad.

With the news that Black and his Pixies band mates will soon work on their first album since 1991, it may be awhile before his next solo project. Here's hoping Honeycomb, for all its glowing attributes, does not end up representing the peak of Black's newfound frankness. For while he and his former wife sing that "it's so strange to be saying goodbye," it is stranger still for a singer/songwriter to be coming into his own at this stage of his career, especially with such endearingly honest, and wholly satisfying, results.

-- By George Henn

Posted by medleyville at July 22, 2005 09:06 PM