Charles Thompson was barely 1 year old when Bob Dylan released 1966’s classic, genre-blending Blonde on Blonde, yet the double album eventually had a profound effect on the man who later founded the Pixies (under the name Black Francis).
“It just stuck with me, and for years,” said the singer, now known as Frank Black. “I always wanted to do my own sort of version, Black on Blonde.”
More than a decade ago, Black mentioned this idea to producer Jon Tiven, whose diverse credits include Robert Plant and B.B. King, and the two decided to make it happen as soon as it fit into their schedules. Ten years later, Black was finally ready.
“The Catholics had just come off an exhausting tour — actually several of them — and seemed to be pretty much done,” Black said of his post-Pixies band. “There was nothing going on with Pixies, and I’d just gotten divorced and moved to this new city [Portland, Oregon], so it finally seemed the time to do this thing.”
As fate would have it, though, Black learned hours later that plans for a Pixies reunion were in the works. Both projects started coming together, and by the time they were in place, Black had only four days to record with Tiven. Fortunately, the session players the producer lined up work fast.
“It actually made it cool,” Black said. “It was like, ’Yeah, I’m gonna knock out a record in Nashville for a few days before I head out on my world tour.’ It was very Dylan.”
To play on the album, Tiven put together a who’s who of veteran session musicians that included Steve Cropper, Spooner Oldham, Buddy Miller and David Hood, who among them had recorded with some of the biggest artists in country, R&B and rock, from Otis Redding to Elvis Presley.
“I don’t think they really knew my stuff, but it didn’t really matter,” Black said. “I would show them the basics, and they would catch on so quickly it was literally one or two takes for every track.”
While those musicians were unlikely collaborators for Black, the singer topped them with the special guest he brought in to duet on “Strange Goodbye”: his ex-wife, Jean.
“I suppose it’s just kind of my joke on the album,” Black said. “Everybody else, all of our friends, were always so uncomfortable about it, so I thought I would throw this at them.”
Along with recording several of Black’s compositions, some of which he wrote years ago, the band also logged a few covers, including “Song of the Shrimp,” which Elvis performed in the movie “Girls! Girls! Girls!,” and “Dark End of the Street,” made famous by Percy Sledge.
None of the tracks sound anything like Black’s previous work. It’s more like a mixtape for a peaceful hike, heavy with alt-country and Van Morrison-like light rock. An updated Blonde on Blonde is about accurate.
In the end, however, Black chose not to call it Black on Blonde because “it was a little too campy.” Instead, he borrowed the title of the one of the tracks, “Honeycomb.” “It was just a cool word that sounded singer/songwritery, but not too wimpy,” he said.
Black is currently trying to line up the same musicians for a tour to promote the album, due July 19. “I’m not sure how much demand there is, though,” he said. “[It’s] certainly not like the Pixies.”
Black is hitting the road with that band, too, for about a month beginning May 26 in Portland. Although he’s the one who originally broke up the band years ago, he thoroughly enjoyed the comeback tour, one of the most successful treks of last year.
“I forgot how good it feels to be with these guys, not just onstage, but offstage,” he said. “We have the same sort of sense of humor and all that. And we’re being rewarded financially for something we did 20 years ago, and I’m not embarrassed by that. Isn’t that what art is about? Being recognized?”
When asked if the Pixies plan to record new material, Black promptly answered, “We’re a reunion band. People want to hear the old stuff.”
Later, however, he said, “We’ll record eventually. It’s just easy not to do when promoters are calling every day with crazy money trying to book shows.”