Frank Black sans The Catholics. Now what does that sound like? It’s been almost a decade since Frank’s last solo outing (in the form of the Cult Of Ray LP) and since then he’s been finding solace in his good Catholic buddies. Heck, he even U-turned over the whole “Pixies will never reform” thing rather than venture out on his lonesome once more. So why now, Charles?
First of all, let’s be honest – this is not, strictly speaking, a solo effort. Okay, you wrote all but three of the tracks, but only a fool would deny that Honeycomb’s overriding appeal is to be found in its guest musicians, which largely consists of Nashville legends including guitarist Buddy Miller, organist Spooner Oldham, Anton Fig and Reggie Young, with proceedings held together by Wilson Picket and B.B. King producer Jon Tiven.
So what stops Honeycomb degenerating into mutual musical masturbation between the Real Madrid Galacticos of country music? The affair is, simply put, immensly simplistic. As Frank himself put it, the Honeycomb session players are “pre-punk”, and, as such, there is no urge to show off. The level of noise they concoct wouldn’t trouble a sleeping kitten, and Frank’s penning is less Something Against You, more Show Me Your Tears.
Even the most fanatical of Frank’s followers will tell you that his solo career has been, to varying degrees, hit and miss. The Catholics provided some stability to his writing towards the back of the 90s, but still, few laymen would have thought him to be the same fresh faced youngster that brought the world the likes of Where Is My Mind? and Debaser. Members of the Cult Of Frank will be overjoyed, then, to hear that Honeycomb is the most cohesive, consistent Frank Black record in years.
Album opener Selkie Bride is beautifully unhurried and authentic, harking back to the low gear poetry that Leonard Cohen made his own. I Burn Today, too, is instantly familiar, like those summer afternoon grooves your parents would play and you would pretend to dislike. Tiven’s delicate production takes the record from strength to strength, from the (again) Cohen-esque Another Velvet Nightmare to the desert driving music of Go Find Your Saint.
In what could only be described as a massive compliment to Mr Black, Honeycomb’s original compositions blend seamlessly with their covered counterparts, and it would take a country music boffin of the highest calibre to tell them apart: The touching Strange Goodbye (featuring a duet with Frank’s ex-wife), which could only be a couple of years old at most, is on a par with a thoroughly enjoyable cover of Roy Bennett and Sid Tepper‘s Song Of The Shrimp (as seen in the Elvis movie Girls, Girls, Girls).
Honeycomb may have taken just four days in a Nashville studio to record, but it will surely be remembered as perhaps the greatest Frank Black LP (to date, at least) and perhaps even as the record that made it cool to like country again (get your coat, Keith Urban). Then again, it might just be the summer soundtrack that you spin only once a year. Either way, as the desert faiytale tones of Sing For Joy fade away, there’s no question that this was four days well spent.