September 2005

Arts & Letters

‘Honeycomb’ by Frank Black

By Robert Forster

This is a Sunday afternoon barbecue record: people milling about, sausages turning, maybe some Mexican beer. “Who’s this?” someone asks. “It’s the guy who used to be in The Pixies,” someone else replies. There are blank looks until another person, the owner of the record perhaps, adds: “He’s gone to Nashville and made a country album with some famous old players. Sounds good, doesn’t it.” And it does. People nod, the dog barks and Honeycomb drifts nicely around the garden encircled by the picket fence.

The sleeve credits pronounce that “no digital manipulation was used”, and the sound is lovely, warm and rich, picking up every lick those old players – Steve Cropper, Reggie Young, Buddy Miller, pianist Spooner Oldham – lay down. It’s the dream-team a record collector would put forward if they were asked to assemble a band. And in a roundabout way that is the album’s pitch: alternative rock god cuts loose off-the-cuff album with super-respected A-list older guys he digs.

For the most part it works. Black’s voice breaks and croaks and can then go pure honey. His songwriting is professional enough and inspired in places – “I Burn Today” and “Sing For Joy” – while other songs roll and move in ways we have heard before. His strength is melody, his weakness lyrics, which tend to match first-thought rhyme with irritating stream-of-consciousness logic. The three covers come with mixed results. Do we really need another version of “Dark End of the Street”? But it’s almost as if Honeycomb is operating on another level. The concept works. It’s not background music and yet it slides into the background, with a classic ’70s feel, so that back at the barbecue someone is saying “isn’t this a great record?” – when, in fact, it’s not.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

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