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Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Ballad Of The Broken Seas
V2 Records

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… leaving 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.

-Embo Blake

Track Listing:
1. Deus Ibi Est
2. Black Mountain
3. False Husband, The
4. Ballad Of The Broken Seas
5. Revolver
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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