It would be wrong of me to try to pass myself off as really having
anything more than a basic knowledge of Isobel Campbell. I
know that she was once part of indie wunderkinds Belle And Sebastian,
but has since gone her own way and made a few solo recordings. I don't
claim to know those recordings, and I can honestly only dimly recognize
her voice from those early years of Belle
I much preferred the
Looper over them anyway
But, I have a long standing acquaintance with Mark Lanegan
and his music. Growing up in the environs of San Francisco in the
early 90's I was witness to so many of the budding punk bands that
turned to the seventies for inspiration and created the new genre
that came to be known as grunge. Lanegan was involved in that scene
while fronting the indomitable rock and roll force that was The
Screaming Trees. They were a band that I saw as much as I could
possibly fit into my sometimes-hectic schedule, and I rued the day
they seemed to have disbanded. But I found comfort in the odd solo
records from Lanegan, where he allowed his gravelly voice to further
explore the whiskey-soaked darknesses of his own soul, and a bit of
hope when he resurfaced as one of the occasional forces behind the
mighty rock machine, Queens Of The Stone Age.
Ballad Of The Broken Seas finds Lanegan preaching in that
same deeply hollow voice which keenly offsets the near-angelic soprano
of Campbell. "Deus Ibi Est" gets the album lumbering on
with it's plodding rhythmic acoustic guitar accompanied by Lanegan's
Cohen-esque narrative that is interrupted at the choruses by
the clarity and strange joy of Campbell's voice laying out a simple
shanty's melody. "Black Mountain" is a beautiful folk tune
that finds Campbell weaving her hypnotic spell eerily, channeling
the sprit of early Simon & Garfunkel. "The False Husband"
is where the real album kicks in, a heavily tremeloed twanging guitar
sets the tone for a very Nick Cave-ish dirge underpinned by
strings that would have been perfect on a Jimmy Webb/ Glen
Campbell record. The title track is a piano and strings affair,
with arguably the deepest lyrics on the record, exploring the ins
and outs of a failing relationship and the peripheral conceptuary.
The cello of Campbell is beautifully recorded and adds a depth to
the song that is transcendent in both its timbre and melancholy.
The album plays like a love affair gone wrong, with whispered warnings
of betrayal and cautionary warnings galore. Thick guitars mark the
edgier songs, while acoustic guitars and softer strings highlight
the few moments of joyous beauty, such as on "Come Walk With
Me", a jaunty tune that makes for a splendid respite from the
otherwise dark moods of the record. Trashy drums and echoing guitars
make many songs on the album jump up with a gloomy backwoods stomp
that recalls moments of Slim Cessna's Autoclub at their darkest,
while the singer's voices do a tremendous job of bringing to light
the various complexities of the failing relationship. Campbell's siren
call alludes to some semblance of serenity on the weirdly off-rhythm
"Saturday's gone" while Lanegan's powerfully hoarse baritone
makes "The Circus Is Leaving Town" resonate with a certain
flavor of Neil Diamond stuck in a dark room for far too many
years with nothing but whiskey and cigarettes upon which to live.
By the end of the record, there is a sense of reconciliation, albeit
a resignedly desperate one. "Still waters still run deep"
seems to make the most sense of the closing few tracks
a feeling of bruised hope for the lovers who may or may not have weathered
the storms of life and love.
There is, in the current crop of Americana, those that rely on retreading
familiar pathways of sound, and then there are records like this,
that borrow a bit from the past, but arrange things in such a way
that the sound is fresh and beautifully exciting. Fans of deep songwriting
and heavily emotive songs will certainly find a gem well worth their
time on Ballad Of The Broken Seas. Additionally, do yourself
a favor and track down the lead single CD for "Ramblin' Man".
You'll be treated to a beautifully haunting version of the weirdly
classic "St. James Infirmary"
enough to cement this
artistic pairing as an instant classic, as well as one of the finest
albums of the year.
1. Deus Ibi Est
2. Black Mountain
3. False Husband, The
4. Ballad Of The Broken Seas
6. Ramblin' Man
7. Come Walk With Me?, (Do You Wanna)
8. Saturday's Gone
9. It's Hard To Kill A Bad Thing
10. Honey Child What Can I Do?
11. Dusty Wreath
12. The Circus Is Leaving Town
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