The Pixies didn't really sound like any other act. That's partly why the alt-rock icons are revered and currently cleaning up on the reunion circuit. But the band did tip its hat here and there to various influences, both expected and unexpected. The classified ad that led to the group's original formation called for a bassist "into Peter, Paul & Mary and Husker Du." Leader Black Francis (now known as Frank Black) frequently praised Iggy Pop, and the band later covered Neil Young, the Beatles and Leonard Cohen as well as various obscure surf instrumentals, the Jesus and Mary Chain, a theme from a video game and music from David Lynch films.
With the Pixies reunion in full swing and a new album rumored, and with Black now nine albums into a solo career, you'd think no more stylistic surprises were left in store. But then comes Black's latest, "Honeycomb," an album of country-soul covers and originals. Yes, that's right, country soul -- and not the ersatz ironic variety, either. In an unexpected creative coup, Black arranged a dream lineup to convene in Nashville for the disc's rapid-fire four-day recording, including Stax Records house guitarist Steve Cropper, Muscle Shoals session bassist David Hood, Nashville guitar whiz Buddy Miller and even southern-soul songwriting legends Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.
With so many legends on hand, there wouldn't seem to be much room for Black's distinctive voice, but somehow the singer comfortably makes the move into mellow, middle-aged musical territory with his personality intact. Granted, you have to pay close attention to catch hints of the Black Francis of yore. There's no screaming involved, but his trademark biblical references and horrific imagery do crop up in songs such as "I Burn for You," "Sing for Joy" and the boozy "Another Velvet Underground."
Although the rendition is completely straight-faced, the choice of the silly Elvis Presley oddity "Song of the Shrimp" (from "Girls, Girls, Girls!") is perfectly in line with Black's taste for the surreal (even if his faithful but stiff cover of "Dark End of the Street" is, in its own way, more bizarre). The only other cover is Doug Sahm's Sir Douglas Quintet ditty "Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day."
Black's songs sit well alongside these apt cover choices. "Strange Goodbye," recorded with ex-wife Jean Black, is a bittersweet, predictably uneasy duet, the kind that used to regularly come out of strained and combative country music relationships. "My Life's in Storage" (one of the few songs that sound struggling to stay hushed) is a striking take on loneliness and isolation.
Yet what the disc lacks, ultimately, is a sense of weight. Although the session aces on hand capably handle the relatively rushed circumstances of the recording, "Honeycomb" feels a little rushed all the same. More damaging, although Black's heart might be in the right place to sing these songs, is that there's barely enough passion to really sell them -- and what's soul music without passion? The result is that as sincere as the record seems, it sounds more like a sonic detour than a taste of things to come.