Published: March, 2006, Rasputin Manifesto
Beauty and the Beast, Angel and Devil, Dirt and Flowers:
Isobel Campbell meets Mark Lanegan

By Michael Fortes

Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway… Bob Dylan and Joan Baez… Johnny Cash and June Carter… and now, following in the footsteps of these great duet partners, come Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan.

Beauty and the beast, angel and devil, dirt and flowers. This duo is all about contrast. And as unlikely as the pair seem to be, what with Lanegan's heavy grunge and stoner rock background (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age, the Twilight Singers) vs. Campbell's residency in the land of chamber pop (Belle and Sebastian), in reality they sound like they were made for each other.

So say the sounds encoded as zeros and ones beneath the surface of the new little piece of plastic Ms. Campbell and Mr. Lanegan have released, entitled Ballad of the Broken Seas (V2).

The idea for the record apparently originated with Lanegan. According to a V2 press release, the musically and geographically well-traveled singer met Campbell when touring with Queens of the Stone Age. While expressing his sincere admiration, he made an "offhand" proposal to record that Campbell found hard to resist. The pair completed most of the record in their respective homelands - Campbell resides in Scotland, while Lanegan lives here in the good ol' U-S-of-A - and managed to get together in a Los Angeles studio to record Lanegan's dark lullabye "Revolver," which they sing together in unison.

Lannegan's voice of dust and stone and coarse, coarse gravel is world-weary, distinctive and arresting, whether gently singing a sad melody to a backdrop of Henry Mancini-like strings and spy guitar on "The False Husband" or roaring through Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man." The latter is perhaps his finest moment on the disc, where his trademark rasp is in full command. Campbell whispers a sinister counter melody beneath Lanegan's lead, and with the drums and electric guitar laying down some organic sticks and stones over which the singers ably trot, this version of "Ramblin' Man" surely must have ol' Hank smiling.

Lanegan has many more fine moments, the likes of which I should probably not spoil for you. But let it not go unsaid that this record is ultimately Ms. Campbell's triumph. Between the haunting nighttime melodies she wrote, and her beautifully flawless production (save perhaps the title track… something about a jaunty piano-based waltz that sticks out like a sore thumb on an otherwise guitar-centric record), it's hard to resist the temptation to keep this disc in the player and spin it at least once a day.

Bonus points go to "It's Hard to Kill a Bad Thing." This piece's very existence on a record being sold on the combined star power of two of music's most compelling voices speaks volumes of Ms. Campbell's good taste. Take one part understated bongo percussion, add one part gently, sadly singing acoustic guitar, and add nothing else. That's "It's Hard to Kill a Bad Thing" in a nutshell. Pure, simple, well constructed, the type of thing countless others have done before, but that few who aren't career acoustic guitarists care to do anymore. The piece's title speaks for itself.

Who knows whether anything has happened or is happening between Mark n' Isobel. Not to start rumors or anything, but hearing that grizzled, purely masculine sexuality in small doses for gigantic, unforgettable effect, meshed with the seemingly innocent, gentle, sweet voice of Ms. Campbell, one can't help but wonder. Which was probably their plan all along, and a genius one it was (assuming there was such a plan to begin with). It has made for some of the most thrilling "easy" or "quiet" folksy-rootsy music you're likely to hear all year.