Black Francis got famous because he's weird: As the lead Pixie, he won hearts and minds with edge-of-sanity tales about whores and crustaceans, delivered with the sort of mania that inspires mania in others. He barked and coughed and pulled pretty melodies from angry angles, practically redefining rock dynamics in the process. Then Pixies split, Frank Black was born, and things started to get a little bit… normal. Sure, it could be argued that the final Pixies disc, Trompe Le Monde, began the slide away from strangeness, but his career since—both alone and with The Catholics—feels like a gentle descent into comfort. High points abound, but Frank Black—as opposed to Black Francis—leads a solid bar band through songs that are only occasionally better than good. He's comfortable.
So because he can do things like this if he wants to, Black assembled—or rather, instructed producer Jon Tevin to assemble—a squad of well-known Nashville session men to provide the meat for a bunch of mellow new songs. Steve Cropper (Booker T. & The MG's, Otis Redding), Spooner Oldham (Neil Young, Bob Dylan), Anton Fig (Dylan again, Bruce Springsteen), and many more gathered for just a few days to back Black's shot at the loose spirit of Dylan's Blonde On Blonde. (Black On Blonde was even considered, then wisely scrapped, as a title.) In the days leading up to the Pixies reunion, Black and his hired guns breathed breezy life into a batch of songs that fall somewhere between briskly entertaining and simply inconsequential.
One thing's for certain: There's little fire on Honeycomb. Black ambles around these simple, chipper songs with an unusual delicacy. He's even happy about getting a divorce: On the ill-advised "Strange Goodbye," he duets with his ex-wife about all the fun they had together. Another track, "Violet," is a lovey-dovey lullaby for his current squeeze. Elsewhere, he spikes things up just a bit, allowing a measure of darkness to invade the epic "Sing For Joy" and the pedestrian "My Life Is In Storage." It's tough to fault Black for taking the opportunity to experiment with classic sounds, and without the bright light of his history, Honeycomb might be more appealing. As it stands, it just continues his tiptoe toward the genteel.