Theres a certain beauty and the beast quality to the greatest male/female singer/songwriter duos Consider Jane Birkin, the well-heeled toast of 60s society, hooking up with Serge Gainsbourg, the filthy Gallic singer/songwriters ever-present gauze of Gauloise smoke irreversibly clouding her reputation. Or theres Nancy Sinatra, the golden daughter of the Chairman Of The Board, whose career was rescued from its early doldrums thanks to the intervention of producer Lee Hazlewood, who injected a gravely, cynical tone that gave Nancys subsequent records a disquieting, idiosyncratic charm. And so it is with Ballad Of The Broken Seas, an album length collaboration between Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan.
Theres a similar sense of contrast, between Isobels aching, pristine chill of a vocal, and Lanegans wounded, regret-stewed burr. Their musical backpages could hardly be more different; Isobel found her initial fame playing cello and singing with deftly-melodic Glaswegian indie collective Belle & Sebastian, before branching off for the lushly-orchestrated melancholia of her Gentle Waves for two LPs, and releasing her debut solo album, the acclaimed Amorino, in 2003. Lanegan, on the other hand, sang for Screaming Trees, perhaps the greatest and most underrated of all the grunge bands, until their dissolution in 2000, since when he has juggled the solo career he began while still in the Trees, and a unique role as occasional frontman of Queens Of The Stoneage. The sweet, folksy girl and the grizzled rawk guy; a classic cocktail, perhaps, but the roles are inverted, in this case.
Its weird, begins Isobel, as much as Nancy Sinatra was an influence on this album, as an artist I identify much more with Lee Hazlewood, or with Serge Gainsbourg over Jane Birkin. Im writing most of the songs, Im producing the music, she laughs, Im in the Serge/Lee role, and Mark Lanegan is my own personal Jane or Nancy, which is a thought that amuses me greatly! I had things I wanted to say, from a male perspective, in these songs, and its good to have a male voice to sing them for me.
And what a voice In the songs that make up Ballad Of The Broken Seas, Lanegan sounds, by turns, haunted, shipwrecked, exultant, lost. Isobel, similarly, draws the drama out of these songs with poise and subtlety, singing cautious hope and damned hopelessness as the lyrics demand. Together, the voices complete each other, the songs dialogues as much as duets. The partnership began as Isobel was working on Time Is Just The Same, an EP she released shortly after Amorino, in 2004. The title track featured Eugene Kelly, formerly of The Vaselines and Captain America/Eugenius, on guest vocals, but Kellys voice was too high to sing his lines on Why Does My Head Hurt So, one of the EPs other songs. Isobels boyfriend at the time played her one of Lanegans justly-lauded solo album, and Campbell knew shed found the voice for the song.
After sending the song to Lanegans label, the singer contacted Campbell while he was working on his 2004 Mark Lanegan Band album, Bubblegum, singing the song down the phone to her on their first conversation. They finally met when Queens Of The Stone Age played Glasgows Barrowlands that Summer, and met again when he played Scotland with his Mark Lanegan Band a couple of months later. Speeding across Glasgow in the back of someones car, Lanegan suggested they record an album together. And I thought, yeah, we should, remembers Isobel. If he hadnt suggested it, I wouldnt have taken the idea seriously. But he did. We began an email conversation, Id send him ideas and hed send some back. He was so encouraging, so it was easy. I just felt like I wanted to do something good.
Isobel produced the album, and wrote most of the songs, except for "Revolver," for which Lanegan wrote the lyrics and melody and Isobel arranged the strings, and "Its Hard To Kill A Bad Thing," which Isobels guitarist Jim McCulloch wrote. Mark and Isobel discussed Sinatra and Hazlewood, Birkin and Gainsbourg, but when it came time to write and record the music, Isobel was entirely besotted with the elemental soul of Johnny Cashs American Recordings, specifically the Solitary Man and The Man Comes Around volumes. I just became obsessed with those records, Isobel remembers. They sound so great, so natural and so strong. I remembered telling Mark, when we began, that I wanted to record something classic sounding and timeless. It helped, having such a unique voice to work with. I used those Johnny Cash CDs as reference while we were recording, to show the engineer what I was after. Nancy and Lees Some Velvet Morning was a huge influence too, she admits, For the contrast of the voices, for that production - its like dustbowl Americana, but really weird and psychedelic. The songs of Ballad Of The Broken Seas sprawl across this very canvas Isobel was imagining, songs of betrayal and loss, of a near-cinematic richness, an exquisitely detailed high drama in love with the romance of melancholy. Theres an atmosphere of loss, of transience, Isobel muses, The melancholy we can all have, as humans. But its magnified, made larger than life, like some kind of Brothers Grimm fantasy, with added weirdness and heightened drama. Dreamy, beautiful, with bitterness sluicing around its insides like the dregs of a bottle of wine, Ballad Of The Broken Seas is a remarkable record. Lend it your ear, and it will steal your heart. SUNDAY AT DEVIL DIRT.... The bruised fruit of their labour can now be heard on this album of dust bitten ballads and troubled wanderings,it's even darker than its predecessor.Again,Campbell and Lanegan complement each other beautifully,like silk on cracked leather. And what of the songs themselves? After Ballad Of The Broken Seas,Campbell discovered the crucible of weird old Americana,The Harry Smith Anthology Of Folk Music. It was an epiphany that fed directly into Milkwhite Sheets and has now reached full fruition in Sunday At Devil Dirt. With echoes of old Scandanavian folk tunes, the opening "Seafaring Song" rumbles along to plucked guitar,with the odd wheeze of accordian. As Lanegan recounts the tale of a sailor trading his wordly woes for the deadly embrae of a siren, Campbell's voice hovers behind like a shadow. Mixing sorcery and salvation,"The Raven" is draped in Scott Walker strings,death -knell bells and gorgeous harmonies. Forget the robustness of Lee n Nancy, these songs sound like the doomed siblings of Hazelwood and Nina Lizell circa Cowboy in Sweden. "Who Built The Road" with its sweeping violin and snaking bass,finds tortured souls consumed by the fires of lust. As does the Leonard Cohen-like "Come On Over (Turn Me On) "like a blind man driving at the wheel/like a hound dog scratching out a meal/You and I both know where you belong/Come on over,turn me on."There are many moods here too. The chain-gang spookiness of "Back Burner" could be a lost orphan of Tom Waits. "The Flame That Burns" shuffles like a classic cowpoke ditty, where "stars reign down like dust". And with greasy slide guitar, "Shot Gun Blues" could be a vintage field recording from the Avalon Delta, sweetened by Campbell’s lovely vocal. Others, like the plaintive "Keep Me In Mind Sweetheart", sound like someone kicking up the ashes of an old campfire. In fact, Lanegan’s reaction to the songs is a testament to Campbell’s ever-evolving writing. "He’s always been into folk music. With me, he’s singing songs that are more exposed than the stuff he usually does. So it challenges him as singer. It made me so happy seeing him getting pleasure and happiness from touring the last album. And if something gives Mark Lanegan happiness, I must be some sort of wizard!" And Sunday At Devil Dirt? It’s an evocative title that conjures up images of John Sturges western-noir and lost albums by The Louvin Brothers or Marty Robbins. "I think it’s very suggestive," she concurs. "If each song is a scene in some kind of play, then that’s the place where it’s set. It sounds to me like a movie title or Tennessee Williams play. So many of the songs are about salvation and being wayward and somewhere off the path of righteousness. With the experiences I had making the record, I think it all fits. At the very least, I’ve made an album I’ve really fought for, like it was my child."When Isobel wrote the songs that formed the track-listing for the hugely acclaimed "Sunday at Devil Dirt" she kept back a handful of beauties to release later in the year, songs which are now unveiled on a new EP entitled "Keep Me In Mind Sweetheart". The five new tracks on the EP were recorded during the same sessions in Glasgow and the Catskills that went on to yield "Sunday at Devil Dirt" The songs on the EP are ones Isobel felt worked best as a separate piece of work, and the discerning listener may observe a different flavour to much of the album, though as ever Campbell and Lanegan compliment each other beautifully. Highlights include the beautiful "Asleep on a Sixpence" and "Rambling Rose, Clinging Vine" which already sound like instant standards.