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Black light

It's a slightly surreal experience hearing Frank Black take on the soul classic "Dark End of the Street" on his new album, Honeycomb. One of the definite dark ballads in the R&B canon, it's not an easy fit for a yelping iconoclast who once gave us "Nimrod's Son" and "Wave of Mutilation." But Black's unironic commitment to the song - and his tentative groping for the proper delivery - bridges the gap between his pipes and his aspirations. You don't for a minute believe you're listening to the tortured James Carr, but you're willing to accept that Black knows something about guilt and shame.

"Dark End of the Street" aside, Honeycomb really isn't Black's foray into authentic Southern soul, even if he leans on the backing of Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, Stax guitar great Steve Cropper, and Memphis' American Studios vet Reggie Young. Recorded in Nashville at a studio owned by famed songwriter/producer Dan Penn (co-writer of "Dark End of the Street"), it's modeled on another album cut in Nashville by an outsider: Bob Dylan's 1966 classic Blonde on Blonde. In fact, Black toyed with the idea of calling this disc Black on Blonde, before deciding that he might be overplaying his hand.

The album's first single, "I Burn Today" has the lithe feel, fluid guitar picking, and muted brushwork of Blonde on Blonde standouts such as "I Want You" and "Just Like A Woman." Just as Dylan adapted the slick professionalism of his Music City players into something between their country and his bluesy rock, Black is aiming for a specific hybrid.

When the songs match the musicianship, as on the classically complex existential lament "My Life Is In Storage," it's like hearing a more accomplished Pixies with their amps turned down so as not to wake the neighbors. The album's ultimate masterstroke, however, is an endearingly faithful reading of San Antonio icon Doug Sahm's "Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day." A snapshot of Sahm basking in the Summer of Love warmth of the Bay Area hippie scene, it shouldn't hold any particular relevance for Black. But Black has always recognized the value of a good tune, and on Honeycomb he writes and covers some of the best of his solo career.

By Gilbert Garcia

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