CD Review of Sunday at Devil Dirt by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Recommended if you like
Belle & Sebastian, Cat Power,
Screaming Trees
Isobel Campbell &
Mark Lanegan:
Sunday at Devil Dirt

Reviewed by Michael Fortes


iven the tendency of Mark Lanegan to operate like a musical wanderer, the emergence of a second album of duets with erstwhile Belle & Sebastian cellist-vocalist Isobel Campbell came as quite a surprise – and a welcome one at that. 2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas was a left-field artistic triumph, both for Campbell and for Lanegan. And damn if it wasn’t one of the coolest records released that year.

For the pair’s second outing, the formula that worked so well for Ballad of the Broken Seas is altered only slightly. Campbell still writes the lion’s share of the material on Sunday at Devil Dirt, though this time she yields a little more vocal space to her gruff-voiced counterpart, belying the fact that Lanegan has no writing contributions on the album. And while Campbell’s guitarist Jim McCulloch has his say again too, via "Salvation," this time he and Campbell share credits on a song, "Who Built the Road."

Of course, if you pair a grizzled, tattooed love boy’s roughed up vocals with a cute, soft-spoken chamber pop stylist, heads are bound to turn. The novelty isn’t quite there the way it was two years ago, but the spark is still in the music. It’s in the gut-level, rural "Shot Gun Blues," as Campbell coos "ooh daddy" both sensuously and murderously to a slide-enhanced acoustic guitar. It’s in the kitschy strings of "Come on Over (Turn Me On)," where Campbell’s whisper and Lanegan’s gentle growl combine for a creepy take on desire-in-song to a melody that vaguely recalls Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit." And in the nearly seven-minute drone of "Back Burner," the spark is menacing – Lanegan’s promise that "I ain’t gonna let you down / promise you I’ll stick around" comes off more like a threat than a pledge of devotion. But it’s Campbell’s background chants that send this one over the top, only to crumble the whole thing up with a slap of symbolic musical laughter – its final minute of bad Latin jazz is a rare display of humor.

Campbell may have done most of the legwork here in assembling the material, but just like on pretty much every project Lanegan has ever touched, his mere presence shape-shifts the proceedings into something that would not be possible without him. Lanegan’s brooding yet cool take on Americana is a perfect fit for Campbell’s lonesome sigh of a voice, and it’s to her credit that Campbell not only came up with a batch of songs so well-suited to Lanegan’s style, but also succeeded in matching the nonchalant cool of the pair’s first album.

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