Here’s a clip of former Pixies belter Frank Black (aka Black Francis, kids) with a track from his 2005 Honeycomb album. It’s “I Burn Today”, a song which betrays Black’s love for mid-60s Bob Dylan. In fact, Black followed His Bobness’ path to Nashville, recording this album and song in a like manner to 1966’s Blonde on Blonde.
Frank Black has been positioned as one of the fathers of grunge, inspiring Kurt Cobain among other grunge icons, and modeling a key sonic ingredient of that scene – the quiet verse with loud chorus. Yet, despite Black’s pedigree as a shouty, indie rock god, he was as interested in roots rock. And this album, his eleventh and recorded within a span of days, certainly puts that passion for soul and folk music on display. This particular tune is deeply in Dylan country, although perhaps it’s more Nashville Skyline Bob, than Blonde on Blonde.
While in Nashville, Black recorded with luminary musicians that included Spooner Oldham, Steve Cropper, Dan Penn, and Chester Thompson, among others. And in addition to the originals he laid down, he also took time to record unexpected cover versions of the James Carr classic ‘the Dark End of the Street’, ‘Song of the Shrimp’ an Elvis Presley movie tune as recorded by Townes Van Zandt, and Doug Sahm’s ‘Sunday Sunny Mill Valley Groove Day’, possibly to culturally orientate himself to his Southern surroundings. Nashville is a rock ‘n’ roll and country Mecca, afterall, a cultural hub from which springs all manner of strains of popular song.
Yet, Black would show himself to be a formidable songwriting talent in this context as well as any other. And what a song this is, full of sadness and pathos, and a far cry from the feral wail of his Pixies days. Perhaps a part of it is that he had so many musicians to impress in a short time period. But on this song and the rest of the album, it’s as if Black had always been a roots musician, evident from the tender, acoustic lines of this song. And in addition to being heartfelt, I think what comes through in “I Burn Today” is Black’s ability to write any type of song, father of grunge or not.
That this is a break-up song is suggested in tone and also in the lines
“She said have fun/its time has come/hold my heart strings/and have yourself a strum/no, nevermore this song will we play/I burn today.”
Yet Black and then-wife Jean were going through a divorce, despite her presence on another track “Strange Goodbye”. And perhaps Black’s sojourn to the heart of American music was more than a stylistic one. Perhaps it was one of the soul, too.
For more information about Frank Black, check out Frankblack.net