Review: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – Ballad of the Broken Seas

1 Apr

Publication: Trinity News
Date Published: February 2006
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Since her departure from fabled indie legends Belle And Sebastian, the gods of music have not been too kind to Isobel Campbell. While her ex-bandmates continue to enjoy resurgent success and critical acclaim on the back of 2003’s Mercury-nominated “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”, the solo career of the young songstress has been pockmarked with mediocrity. 2003 saw her solo debut “Amorino” sympathetically written off as a brave offering, symptomatic of her struggle to adjust to life without the safety net of a band. But time has passed, and as of late, Campbell has mustered up a new-found determination to rejuvenate and re-establish her career. And what better way to attract attention than a much-anticipated collaboration with Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age fame.

Described by Campbell as a “sun-bleached and psychedelic” tribute to her country and western influences, “Ballad of the Broken Seas” initially appears to be anything but. The album’s opener, ‘Deus Ibi Est’, is a bitter lament of the futility of war. Its pounding beat, Lanegan’s gruff narrative and Campbell’s high-pitched vocals all combine to make it sound like an excerpt from “Satanic Rituals for Dummies”. Prolonging the dark atmosphere, ‘The False Husband’ continues in a similar vein, its sinister riffs and eerie bells overpowering Campbell’s melodic interludes.

In Lanegan, Campbell claims to have found her muse, described as a Nancy Sinatra to bring out the best in her Lee Hazlewood. Industry ears pricked at the thought of Lanegan’s weathered growl and Campbell’s celestial charm uniting to recount stories of a love that is in equal parts tough and tender. However, the vocal unity and balance which one might expect from such a collaboration is distinctly lacking and, for a large part of the record, Campbell is relegated to the unseemly role of backing vocalist. Whether such a disparity is intentional or not, it does bear fruit on one crucial occasion – the duo’s sinister reworking of the Hank Williams classic, ‘Ramblin’ Man’. As Lanegan excellently holds his own in the title role, Campbell’s distorted counterpoint whisperings invoke a second persona, brilliantly adding a new dimension to the classic piece.

Unsurprisingly, the gimmick of contrasting voices proves wholly ineffective in its attempts to conceal the inherent faults in the album’s weaker offerings. In fact, it would appear that Lanegan and Campbell are most effective not when employing the polarised deep bass/high treble approach, but rather when the chasm between their voices is reduced to its minimum. It is no coincidence that standout tracks such as the title track and ‘(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?’ see the duo combining in close harmony, the soundscape stripped down to the bare essentials.

For someone whose solo career has not exactly been flourishing to date, such a collaboration represents a bold step for Campbell. If nothing else, “Ballad of the Broken Seas” is sure to attract a number of listeners purely due to the bizarre pairing of Campbell and Lanegan, and the chalk-and-cheese contrast of their respective voices. Whilst very listenable and bordering on impressive in places, the presence of too many weak links is sure to prevent this one from ever attaining more than a sporadic casual airing in most people’s collections. A step in the right direction for the Scottish chanteuse, but there’s more work to be done.

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