Reviews and interviews For Sunday At Devil Dirt
Gainsbourg and Birkin, Hazlewood and (Nancy) Sinatra, Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop: say it how you will, but there was something a little too calculating about Campbell & Lanegan’s first collaboration, Ballad of the Broken Seas. It had its moments, but the songs relied too heavily on the contrast between the roughness of Lanegan and the sweetness of Campbell to be truly convincing.
Sunday At Devil Dirt inhabits the same scorched earth, but is a more confident record. Ironically, this confidence manifests itself in an understated vocal performance from Campbell, leaving the spotlight on Lanegan’s dusty baritone. He still sounds at times like a man who is lower than the heel of Lee Marvin’s left boot, but there’s a lovely tenderness to his singing, and he’s never sounded sweeter than he does on the brooding Trouble. (It’s traditional to compare Lanegan to Johnny Cash, but in this world-weary mode he’s closer to Kris Kristofferson, inhaling the fresh air on Sunday Morning Coming Down.)
If Lanegan dominates vocally, the bouquets should go to
Campbell. She wrote the songs (with the exception of Jim McCulloch’s
Salvation), and produced the record, and must take the credit for the
album’s mood, which mixes the mystical eroticism of The Raven with
the Dr John-inflected rhythms of Back Burner; a sultry tune which –
in ways that would take years of therapy to explain - made me think of
a dancing Elvis Presley.
There’s a whistling solo, and car horns, and bells. And on Shotgun Blues, there’s Campbell, her little girl voice wrapped in a barbed wire blues, singing a song about an itch that needs scratching. It’s innocent and filthy. But mostly filthy.
UNCUT Q&A: ISOBEL CAMPBELL
Were you trying to keep the songs simple?
Do you enjoy writing songs to be sung by a man?
Do you worry that your collaborations will overwhelm your
The Mercury prize nominated 'Ballad Of The Broken Seas' revealed a surprise pairing of contrasting opposites that in lesser hands could prove so much scrambled egg, but the gruff baritone of Mark Lanegan (The Gutter Twins, Screaming Trees, Queens Of The Stone Age) and the Tupelo honeyed vocals of Isobel Campbell (Belle & Sebastian) again proves one of those wonderful dalliances that have come about as beauty and the beast pairings in the guise of Nick Cave & Kylie Minogue, Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, and Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin. This follow up, 'Sunday At Devil Dirt', cements that friendship with Lanegan clearly wearing the trousers in the relationship and the whispered tones of Campbell playing the atmospheric supporting role, the pitched baritone taking the songs firmly in hand. The dynamic lies in the duet, and the songbook here is coloured by a search for redemption with tales of seafarers, lost souls, forbidden love and lamentations.
The delightful 'Seafaring Song' takes to the high seas with a Cohen-esque ballad on a tale of long ago with accordion and lilting strings, and 'Who Build The Road' ignites the relationship on a song of wild souls saved by the redeeming power of love, while 'The Flame That Burns' has sepia antique-tones on a seductive bluesy rag with Campbell cooing like a dove. The Cohen/Cave flavoured 'The Raven' sets a tone to a spaghetti-Western with a sense of foreboding as Lanegan barely raises a register above a croak, and the Dr John-like pan-African voodoo of 'Back Burner' stalks with a slow staccato beat with all the intensity of a stiff espresso and a whisky burn. On 'Shotgun Blues' Campbell swelters, singing oh so naughtily - "...ooh Daddy/ climbing on your knee/ I got an itch needs scratching/ you take good care of me..." to a riffing bottleneck blues guitar, while Jools will no doubt love to get on down for 'Come On Over (Turn Me On)', a track that swoons with a seductive flick of the hair and a revealing dress as bluesy licks and waltzing strings add to the air of intoxication
Softer tones are explored on the rummy old 'Salvation', written by Jim McCulloch, a Dylan-esque nugget that reminds of big Bob's 'It's All Over Now Baby Blue', Lanegan singing "...my blood is flowing slowly like the tide/ and blood is thick and so's my old grey hide...", with the galvanising rallying call - "...gotta get up and moan...", and the hay-bale country duet of 'Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart' makes for a slow square dance, while the rhyming couplets of 'Something To Believe' seem a trite laboured but the melody lifted by the Whittaker-esque whistles. Cat Stevens and Ray Lamontagne have had a good crack at that old demonmeister, trouble, and on 'Trouble' a weary tone is set by standing bass and a slow waltz while the duo make for a complimentary rather than contrasting pair singing "...Oh trouble/ haven't slept a day in years..." as Hammond organ and strings give the weary souls some reprieve.
Campbell likens the vignettes of 'Sunday At Devil Dirt' to scenes from a Tennessee Williams play with no hint of braggadocio from the Scot who has earned herself a place in Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music. The folksy blues of 'Ballad Of The Broken Seas' with its' tales of murder and revenge are replaced by a need for succor and redemption on 'Sunday At Devil Dirt', no easy task with your face in the mud. Yet the musicality is given an airing and the tones shift throughout as waltzes, blues rags, a spaghetti-Western coda and country ballads are set to lilting and soaring strings. With Campbell working at this album some two years and the Lanegan's voice-for-hire contribution some nine days, my money's on Campbell making this relationship endure.
It was another surprising detour in a career composed almost exclusively of detours: Isobel Campbell, former Belle & Sebastian member and sometime solo act, teamed with Mark Lanegan, taciturn former Screaming Trees singer and serial collaborator. With the release of their Ballad of the Broken Seas, the "Beauty and the Beast" lines came fast and furious. So did the Nancy and Lee comparisons, which were probably welcome. The pairing of Lanegan and Campbell may have come as a shock to fans of the latter (and maybe even the former) but the music itself was less than revelatory. Indeed, the Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra template is iconic for a reason, and to borrow it means to risk imitating them. It also means treading closely to Leonard Cohen, Scott Walker, or any other somber, late-1960s orchestral pop act.
Still, the results were beautiful and brooding, with Campbell's songwriting significantly enhanced by this very specific setting. Sequels, however, are inherently built on familiarity and a sequel to the solid yet by-the-books Ballad of the Broken Seas could be as problematic as the Hollywood models are. Yet while Sunday at Devil Dirt may be more of the same (with glimpses of Tom Waits' junkyard blues tossed in to good effect), Campbell and Lanegan were never out to do anything different. Once again, melancholy, minor-key folk melodies, and bits of spy-theme and spaghetti-western cool color the album, typically enhanced by only the classiest of accompaniment-- upright bass, strings, brushed drums, twangy electric guitars, and other chamber-pop mainstays. And once again, Campbell works better as a supporting player on her own record than as a leader, cooing and chiming away in the background. Sure, she provides most of the songwriting, but it's Lanegan who provides the gravitas.
Fortunately, Campbell seems to realize her place here as writer and arranger first and foremost, generally ceding the spotlight to Lanegan on the likes of the bleak (of course) "The Raven" and "Back Burner", the somewhat lighter country-blues of "Salvation" and "Sally Don't You Cry", and the spare folk of "Something to Believe". Compared to Lanegan, Campbell sounds thin singing lead on "Shot Gun Blues" or as duet partner on "Who Built the Road" and "The Flame That Burns". Her vocals are almost like post-production special effects.
In a lot of ways that's what makes the disc such a good, breezy listen. Campbell's turn on "Come On Over (Turn Me On)" aims for sultry yet can't get beyond sweet and innocent; in Lanegan, however, she's found a substitute singer that's a perfect match for the strength of her compositions, a rumbling, grumbling vessel through which to channel her songs, themselves channeling the vibe of a lost but not forgotten time of smoky bars, scratchy jukeboxes, convertibles, open roads, broken hearts, cheap motels, and cheaper thrills. It's a bit like a dust-specked and flickering faux Super-8 road trip reel, with Campbell manning the camera and sitting in the director's chair and Lanegan glowering away in the uncomfortable glare of the sun.
- Joshua Klein, May 9, 2008
This is more powerful and more cinematic than previous Ballad of the Broken Seas. The more old he gets, more darkness his songs become, and Campbell's back vocals are adorable. After all, closing songs are not that much dark, they're almost sweet despite Mark Lanegan's smoky voice. No need to mention about Serge Gainsbourg, Tom Waits, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, and Mark Lanegan, you should drink to this album. Devil loves rock, and that's not your only match with him.
Isobel Campbell And Mark Lanegan - The Raven
MM picks: Who Built The Road, Come On Over (Turn Me On), Back Burner
The undercurrent of Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s first album, Ballad of the Broken Seas, is an overcurrent on the follow-up. “Come on over, turn me on,” they sing (on the song of the same name), the captivating contrast between her barely-there voice and his speaker-filling grungy growl more marked than ever. On Shotgun Blues, she is purring “Love to hear you moan”, and I don’t think she means she enjoys hearing Lanegan’s views on irritating ring tones. It’s a relief when the “Get a room! Oh, you have” ambience lets up for some alt-country strum-alongs; yet, even when Lanegan switches to his ballad voice, the chemistry between the two is riveting. Throughout, Campbell’s songs are simple, direct, gorgeous. If, after the brilliant Ballad, you had said that this pair would reunite and make an even better album, I wouldn’t have believed you – but I think they just have.
Some people have all the luck. You know the ones I mean; the sort of folk who stride through life safe in the knowledge that Lady Fortune will prescribe yet another dose of opportunity upon which their dreams can be realised. It’s said that such fortuity favours the brave, yet when things like this and especially this happen it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that luck is anything other than a prerequisite of the privileged.
It would be easy then to argue that mouse-shy Isobel Campbell is one of the luck-struck few. Having been part of cultish twee-mongers Belle & Sebastian during, what was arguably, their most prodigious years, the Glaswegian-born songstress’ career nosedived on the release of her poorly received debut solo album (discounting two distinctly ‘meh’ Gentle Waves LPs) Amorino, leaving Campbell’s decision to flee Stuart Murdoch’s flock of bedtime reading jingle-janglers looking like a disastrous spot of self-aggrandised folly.
But then, as luck would have it, Campbell hit gold. By coaxing gravel-pit grizzly Mark Lanegan into collaborating on smoke-stained long-player Ballad Of The Broken Seas (review), the reticent cooer was transformed from corduroy-clad pin-up girl to ravishing, blues-smudged chanteuse. A devilish, fiery-eyed record exuding arresting tales of love, lust and loss, it was a remarkable juxtaposition of sandpaper and silk or, as many a hack would eagerly deduce, beauty and beast. Musically, Ballad… may not have been an entirely satisfying affair, but the stark contrast of Campbell’s sheenful purr brushed against Lanegan’s baritonal growl produced one of 2006’s most intriguing records.
Fast-forward two years and the unlikely Mercury Prize-nominated duo are once again caught in a smouldering embrace – but this time the element of surprise has disappointingly vanished. Album number two, Sunday At Devil Dirt, is comparable to the rekindling of an old flame; filled with memories of good times gone yet lacking the spark of fresh, unexplored pastures. Again penned almost entirely by Campbell before tweaked to fit Lanegan’s whisky-guzzled grumbling, there’s a distinct element of ‘seen it, done it, milking it’ to every rootsy, airsome shanty and, although executed with exemplary grace, it seems there’s not quite enough fuel left to stoke the fires of desire once more.
That’s not to say Sunday At Devil Dirt is an unmitigated catastrophe. Any record that contains the lachrymose presence of Lanegan and the smoky wafts of bromidic tone he exhales cannot fail to intrigue. But from the first brittle notes of ‘Seafaring Song’ it’s apparent that the enveloping captivation of Ballad… has disappeared, replaced with a stale, minor-key haze of strum and string while Campbell lingers sultrily in the background of Lanegan’s dilapidated crow. And it’s in this opening number’s formation where …Devil Dirt’s main problem derives.
For much of the proceeding 40-odd minutes Campbell appears so innately aware of her brutish accomplice’s ability to draw crowds she’s consigned herself to bit-part wing-woman. Tracks such as the sluggish ‘Salvation’ and gloom-laden ‘Something To Believe’ lack the sleight of touch her wistful mew provides, leaving what could be two heart-rousing duets to kick their heels in the dust-bitten rabble of Lanegan’s less than invigorated, bass-heavy growl. For sure, there are times when the ex-Screaming Trees frontman is an esteemed vocal exhilarant – adding an unequivocal snarl to ‘Back Burner’’s demanding voodoo-blues or the equally ravaged ‘The Raven’ – but, with Campbell’s main input confined to breezy harmonies, the likes of ‘Trouble’ and ‘Keep Me In Mind Sweetheart’ feel lonesome and bare-boned amidst a spate of perfunctorily arranged country laments.
When Campbell finally gets to have her say the results are heavenly: ‘Shot Gun Blues’ is a simmering bar-room rankle of steel guitar and vixen-like pleading while the tombstone bound ‘Who Built The Road’ writhes over a windswept tundra of melancholic chimes and eerie string arrangement. Yet such peaks too often succumb to Lanegan’s limelight-hogging, culminating in the beard-stroking boredom of closer ’Sally don’t You Cry’, a track that exits on such a whimper of humdrum couplets it could well have been scribed by a Johnny Cash-aping ten year old.
With Campbell’s second solo LP, 2006’s Milkwhite Sheets, barely garnering a crumb of acclaim in the pages of the unforgiving music press, it’s of no surprise to find her pulling out the stops with a double dose of prize-catch Lanegan. Yet, judging by the standards set on this less than sparkling offering, her lucky charm may be her eventual undoing.
Like its predecessor, Ballad of the Broken Seas, this follow-up collaboration capitalises on the emotional piquancy of the contrast between Lanegan's smoky baritone and Campbell's honeyed tones, a dialectic of innocence and experience that animates the flawed spirits in her songs.
As for the melancholy, antique tone, it can be summed up in this couplet from "Salvation": "Blood is thick, and so's my old grey hide/Gotta get up and moan."
Pick of the album:'Back Burner', 'Trouble', 'Who Built the Road', 'Something to Believe'
In the song Shot Gun Blues, the guitar work alongside the soft voice of Campbell makes for one delightful song. Once you have listened to the whole tune, it is clear that the roots of this song go deep into Bluesâ€™ past where the inspiration of this song can be found. The track has one of those old western dark feel to it and I love it.
Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart is a beautiful demonstration of their eerie magic that they put into all of their music. Their descriptive lyrics through the whole cut are vivid and very strong in portraying the image that they had when producing the song. Unlike most of the songs on the album that seem to just have a guitar and maybe one or two other instruments, Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart incorporates an entire symphony in the song.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan's new album is a complete success in bringing the blues into pop culture. I recommend that everyone to go online to their website or MySpace to listen to some of the songs that can be found on this new album. Though economic times are tough, this album is definitely worth picking up.
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Sunday at Devil Dirt
Paste rating: 84
Former Screaming Tree and Sebastian’s Belle encore—call
them the “Butter Twins.”
Sunday at Devil Dirt
by Chris Martin
The latest collaboration from Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan—late of Belle And Sebastian and Screaming Trees, respectively—offers a combination that's instantly striking, though not exactly new: the gnarled male vocal and its glassy female foil. Perhaps familiarity makes that blend so resonant (the opener's title, "Seafaring Song," nods to tradition), or maybe it's just an aural parlor trick, but accompanied by lonesome plucked guitar, a smattering of strings, and upright bass as it is here, the mix is undeniable. The question: Can these two sustain interest over an entire album (their second together), or, like so many of their predecessors' contributions, will Sunday At Devil Dirt become mere ambience for the two things most commonly done in bed? As the second song, "The Raven," comes in, featuring Lanegan atop Campbell's wordless backdrop, it's clear that their chemistry not only extends beyond the niceties of their voices intertwining, but overcomes the potential for novelty inherent in their initial collaboration, 2006's Ballad Of The Broken Seas.
When Lanegan leads, the combo truly sings, his voice sounding inconceivably wizened against a backdrop of ghostly coos and sighs from his partner, and instrumentation that goes one of two ways: spare bluesiness, as on "Salvation," and bare-but-lush balladry, found on "Who Built The Road." But Campbell's attentiveness to mood (and the force of her counterpart's pipes) ultimately diminishes her spotlight; when she takes the reins for "Shotgun Blues," her voice is thin, atmospheric wallpaper. Always a gentleman, Lanegan does the heavy lifting—providing equal parts Tom Waits pulp creepiness, Willie Nelson-like hard-earned truth, and Lee Hazlewood come-on, allowing conductor-songwriter Campbell to nuance each song just enough to avoid stagnation. And, for now, the bedroom.
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Sunday at Devil Dirt
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan sound like a more tuneful take on Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood: Lanegan's gruff Leonard Cohen voice is set against lavish string arrangements, with Campbell's breathy murmurs running just beneath it, like an echo or a shadow. At first, it sounds great, but listening to this album straight through is a bore. The songs are well-crafted baroque melodramas, but all the gravelly, repeated lyrics and backup cooing gets monotonous. This is why God gave us random shuffle.
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan produce tender moments
The ever-fecund collaboration between Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan continues to yield fruit: Keep Me In Mind Sweetheart gathers six songs from the Sunday At Devil Dirt sessions never previously released.
Like that record, this EP burrows into the Appalachian folk that exudes jagged, dustbowl romance but it's softer in tone and anchored round Asleep On A Sixpence – a piano-wrapped lullaby that evokes Tom Waits at his most tender and which segues beautifully into the melody from While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night.
The remaining tracks feel decidedly more like outtakes but even tracks as incidental as the instrumental Violin Tango earn their place, while Campbell's feather and pearls voice deservedly takes centre stage on Hang On.
Lanegan recalls a lovelorn Johnny Cash on the title duet but as ever it's the smoky enigma binding these two eerily inscrutable performers that bewitches, with Campbell forever the rose petal to Lanegan's thorn.
Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan shine in an unlikely musical
There's a proud history in pop of men shaping women by writing their songs, overseeing their production, honing their arrangements, even dictating their style.
From Burt Bacharach's relationship with Dionne Warwick, to Sonny's with Cher, Phil Spector's with Darlene Love, and Berry Gordy's with Diana Ross, there's been a pattern of male figures employing women to express their own feelings about femininity, sex and love.
But has anyone ever reversed the roles? Surely they have, but the first example I can think of can be found in the invigorating synergy between Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. On two albums - their debut from two years ago ("Ballad of the Broken Seas") and the new "Sunday at Devil Dirt" - the duo's distaff half, Campbell, authors the music, devises the arrangements and cooks up the production. It's the male of the species - Lanegan - who inhabits her vision purely through his work on the mike.
They make an improbable couple to begin with. Campbell first arose as a key member of Belle & Sebastian, a campy, precious and collegiate project from Scotland known for their pruned brand of neo-'60s pop. Lanegan yowled out of working-class Seattle, first in the grunge band Screaming Trees, then amid the rollicking "desert rock" whomp of Queens of the Stone Age.
His baritone has the sexy bravura of Jim Morrison, though on Campbell's recordings he taps into the biblical portent of a Leonard Cohen. Her waif-like singing wafts around the recordings like a damsel in distress, a mocking spirit or a caring witness.
On their joint records, Lanegan takes nearly all the lead vocal parts. Campbell provides a sheer, ghostly counterpoint. Their dynamic has often been compared to that of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, if with the aforementioned sex change. While "Devil Dirt" has some of their quirkiness and shadow, it avoids their flirty humor in favor of something more resolutely dark. Also, instead of the Hazlewood/Sinatra bent for country, Campbell's pact with Lanegan takes more influences from older, spookier sea chanteys and English ballads. (Campbell explored that world in a more literal way on her own solo albums like 2006's "Milk White Sheets.")
The opening cut, "Seafaring Song" sets the stage. It's a whispered tale of wandering that brings out Lanegan's most brooding side (which is brooding indeed). Despite the music's desolate folk setting, it contains some evocative string arrangements. A track like "Who Built the Road" even approaches the grand flair of Sergio Leone. Lyrically, Campbell obsesses on the search for salvation, which often has the chilling feel of a siren's call.
But it's the sexual dynamic between the two that provides the album's intriguing subtext. Ironically, the dainty-looking Campbell has used the hyper-masculine Lanegan to nail the quintessential lone wolf character. He arises as the ultimate "man with no name," a guy who can't help but captivate listeners as he roams the world doomed.
'HE'S the mummy, I'm the daddy." Isobel Campbell, that minx in sheep's clothing, is in a playful mood as she discusses her musical partner, Mark Lanegan, the ex-Screaming Trees frontman who is the rough to her smooth; the yin to her yang; the beast to her beauty; the, er, mummy to her daddy. And there's more: "He's the puppet and I'm the puppetmaster – and I like that."
When Campbell and Lanegan released their first collaboration, Ballad Of The Broken Seas, two years ago, much was made of this polar coupling. The duo were quickly dubbed a latterday Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood – the fragile ex-Belle & Sebastian maiden who had wisped her way through a handful of solo albums had fallen into the clutches of grizzly corrupter Lanegan, best known at that time as guest vocalist with rock reprobates Queens of the Stone Age.
In fact, as she is colourfully indicating with her mummy/daddy analogy, it was Campbell who wrote the songs, conceived the album and headhunted the LA-based Lanegan as her dream co-vocalist. Her intuition was correct. The album was proclaimed "an instant classic" by NME and went on to be nominated for the Mercury Music Prize as well as becoming her best-selling solo effort by some stretch.
Now the pair have locked horns again on the assured follow-up Sunday At Devil Dirt, which is altogether more grimy and sultry than their more innocent, plaintive first date. Campbell takes more of a back seat vocally this time round, but she has still captured their innate chemistry, even though the notoriously taciturn Lanegan can be an inscrutable workmate.
"He'll be jolly one day and then he'll go back to being quieter than ever and it's as if you're not even there. I try not to take it personally but it's not always easy. For me, it's actually quite masochistic. Sometimes you want to put a whoopee cushion on his chair or blow a big raspberry at him – which I actually do sometimes!"
So why work with him again? "I suppose I'm just a sucker for a good voice," she admits. "He brings a lot of my writing to life and I'll do anything for my songs. It's never been easy, but I hated touring when he wasn't there. Because I do actually love singing with him, it's a total honour. When we're on stage, it's totally the right thing.
"When we finished the last record, I hadn't really made my peace with the whole thing. I just had so much unfinished business, so a couple of really good songs came out quite soon after that record was finished and I was thinking, 'I wish Mark would speak to me and I could get him to sing these songs.'"
Not one to sit around pining while her chosen one played hard to get, Campbell decided to play the field and sent some songs off to Dr John for consideration. Did that not feel like cheating on Lanegan? "Well, he cheats on me!" she laughs, mock indignantly, referring to Lanegan's artistic affairs with Queens of the Stone Age and ex-Afghan Whigs man Greg Dulli, with whom he has formed The Gutter Twins. "He's such a vocal slut. I call him rent-a-voice."
Continuing the amour fou metaphor, she recalls: "I asked him to do another album in a moment of weakness. It was the last night of the first tour we did and I thought, 'If I don't say something to him now, I'm going to lose him forever'. But none of the boys in the band would leave us alone in the room together so the tour manager had to get them to clear off. I said, 'Do you want to do another record?' and he said, 'In a heartbeat.'"
Then, after the honeymoon period, there was the inevitable slog to make things work. Campbell worked on the record for close to two years in all; Lanegan's vocals took nine days. "In a way, it's been my folly," says Campbell. "I book the musicians, I write the songs, I produce the record. Nobody had a gun to my head, I've driven myself. It's been a huge, huge undertaking. But I won't do that again."
Sunday At Devil Dirt was recorded partly in Glasgow, where Campbell still lives, and then up a mountain at Allaire Studios in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, which came recommended by Mercury Rev's guitarist Grasshopper.
"I do tend to like to withdraw and be very uninfluenced," says Campbell. "When you have a big group of musicians in the studio they're all gossiping and talking about other bands and the focus just goes. I like to get absorbed and lose myself in what I'm doing, and the Catskills was the perfect place to do that. It was a totally liberating thing to do and a little adventure."
But that adventure took its toll. "I was in the studio the whole time," recalls Campbell. "I just can't stop until my gut tells me it's done, this is the problem. I just felt like a whipped mule by the end of it. When I finished it in December, I came home and became ill instantly for three months. Every time I make a record it takes a little chip out of me. I think I must be a perfectionist – but that's not to say that my record's perfect."
Sunday At Devil Dirt is no angel of an album. It is, however, a wonderfully atmospheric, contrasting follow-up to Ballad…. "It was never a rejection of the last one. I do see them as brother and sister records. But then I worried, 'What if I make a Guilty Too?'" she frets comically, invoking Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb's 25th anniversary effort to recapture the MOR magic of their classic 1980 collaboration Guilty. "That was in my head the whole time – straight to the bargain bin!"
There is little fear of anyone else making such a bogus comparison. Campbell's writing and arranging tends less towards soft-focus smoochiness and more in the direction of Nina Simone's bluesy sass or Tom Waits' gutter-trawling lamentations. She also cites Bob Dylan's rather unloved 1970 album Self Portrait as a big influence on the sound of this record. "I don't do things to be retro, I just do it because that's generally what my ears like to hear and that's the instruments my imagination hears when I'm working on something."
Now that the album is completed, her first instinct is to retreat to some croft in the wilds of Scotland. Instead, Campbell will tour again with Lanegan. Beyond that, she's not sure what's next. There are some recordings with Evie Sands in her vaults. She has thought about moving to the States. She'd love to work in Nashville and meet Dolly Parton ("her voice sounds like the mountains"), or compose a film soundtrack.
"I've not picked up an instrument all year and it makes
me really sad," she says. "But I'm not going to rush back into
the studio – unless Bob Dylan calls me!"
Just over a year ago, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan finished touring their Mercury-nominated album of duets, Ballad of the Broken Seas, and prepared to say their goodbyes. It was not a night of wild celebration: neither the garrulous Scot nor the gravel-voiced American are social creatures or party animals, and Campbell was concerned that they had reached the end of the road of their association.
"I was worried that Mark would fly back to Los Angeles and disappear into smoke, and maybe we'd never see each other again," she confesses. "I asked him that night if he wanted to make another record with me. He smiled and said: 'In a heartbeat.' And it was such a joy to see that man smile."
Lanegan is not known for his smiles. "Brooding" is the adjective most commonly applied to a man who seems perpetually to wear the long-running battle with his demons upon his glowering brow. Campbell, on the other hand, is of an unnaturally sunny disposition: girlish and giggly, the former Belle and Sebastian singer and cellist is as bright as Lanegan is dark. Which is why they made such a perfect couple on their first collaboration – and now a second, Sunday at Devil Dirt.
The age-old story of opposites attracting has always had a special place in pop history, ever since Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra got together in 1966 to sing "These Boots Are Made For Walking". The archetypal Beauty and the Beast pairing reached a climax with Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin breathlessly coming together on "Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus" in 1969. Since then, countless gravel-voiced males of uncertain age have called on ethereal younger females to cast light upon their shady mumblings, most recently when Primal Scream's aptly bestial front man Bobby Gillespie recreated another of Lee and Nancy's finest moments, "Some Velvet Morning", with the beauteous Kate Moss.
Yet looks can be deceiving. It is not Lanegan but Campbell whose dark heart created the savage tales of murder and revenge that filled Ballad of the Broken Seas, and it is she who spun the seafaring yarns and dust-blown ballads on its splendidly titled successor. Lanegan might be an enthusiastic participant (though "enthusiasm" is not the first word that springs to mind), but in another sense he is merely the hired hand who brings the gritty authenticity of Americana to her lusty potion of gospel and blues, country and folk.
Campbell, 32, accepts that there's inevitably something of a Hammer Horror element to her collaboration with the 43-year-old Lanegan, conjuring clichés of the "young virgin being fed to Satan". Certainly, the vision she conjures up on one of the songs, "Shotgun Blues", is enough to have her cardigan-wearing Belle and Sebastian fans spluttering into their Horlicks. "Ooh daddy, climbing on your knee," she whispers angelically to the unseen (and, in this instance, unheard) Lanegan. "Got an itch needs scratchin',/ You take good care of me."
She also acknowledges that their relationship is a peculiar one. "It's a funny setup," she admits. "I'm not going to lie, it's very unusual. You could raise your eyebrows. I prefer to say it's a unique thing."
It was six years ago, following her departure from Belle and Sebastian, the group she had formed at 19 with her then boyfriend Stuart Murdoch, that Campbell began seeking a baritone voice for a self-penned tune called "Why Does My Head Hurt So?". Her boyfriend of the time suggested the former Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age singer. Campbell had never heard of him but she subsequently sent Lanegan's record company her half-written song. "Then, a few weeks later, he called me up, having written the missing phrases, and sang it down the telephone to me."
Down the phone, at a distance of 6,000 miles, Lanegan told Campbell about himself, about his love of folk and blues, and about his hatred for the commercial aspect of contemporary music. "He is a true music fan," says Campbell, "and I honestly think that is why we hit it off in the first place." They finally met in 2003 after she went to see Lanegan play a solo show in Glasgow. "I was really moved by it and I was in the back of a car with him afterwards and he said we should make an album," she recalls. "So it was Mark's idea to do that record. And I thought it was the coolest thing anyone had said."
With both participants on opposite sides of the world – Campbell in Glasgow, Lanegan in Los Angeles – it was not to be an easy or speedy process. And geography was the least of their problems. "I would write and record the songs and send them off to him by Fed-Ex and wait for him to send them back with his parts, which was usually a matter of weeks – sometimes longer," she recalls. "Mark was in and out of rehab and he would lose the music and then find it months later on his iPod. And he felt he was letting me down, so he kept telling me I should find someone else to take over his job if I wanted."
Happily, Campbell persevered with Lanegan throughout his travails, and even managed to record a solo album, Milkwhite Sheets, during the long wait for him to complete his parts. Their resulting collaboration, Ballad of the Broken Seas, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, and its sequel, Sunday at Devil Dirt, ploughs a similar furrow, but with a wider palette of musical styles. The songs, vignettes that Campbell likens to scenes from a Tennessee Williams play, range from sinister tales of forbidden love set to sweeping string arrangements, to country ballads and spectral blues laments sung over scratchy acoustic guitar, mostly by Lanegan, with Campbell adorning his gravely baritone with her whispery croon.
When she began writing the songs, she found inspiration in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, which records the earliest examples of folk, blues and country music. Another influence is the American South itself, with its melting pot of influences. "I'm fascinated by that part of the world, genuinely intrigued and inspired by it," she enthuses. "A lot of Scottish and Irish people went over there back in the pioneer days and they took a lot of the folk songs with them, and they became fused with gospel and other influences, like the Scandinavian folk music of other settlers. You can still hear mountain music that's so like Scottish traditional music and I love that idea."
Indeed, there are ghosts of Scandinavian folk tunes in the album's opener, "Seafaring Song", which Campbell wrote while on tour with Lanegan in January 2007. "I actually started writing it on a sick bag on a plane," she laughs, "and I remember writing some more in the Holiday Inn in Paris. It was inspiring having Mark around while I was writing a song for him." It was one of several songs she had already written in the hope that he would agree to make a sequel. And, after he agreed to do so in Athens, she went straight to her hotel room to burn him a CD of some of them.
"The Flame That Burns", with its rattling, wheezing rhythms and inspirational lyrics, was written not only for Lanegan, but also about him. "Sometimes," says Campbell, "he has diced with death and awful things and has been in very bad situations – some that I know of, some that I don't – and all the while I have known him, I have always been willing him to be OK."
Campbell, who plays piano, cello, guitar, glockenspiel, vibraphone and tubular bells on the album, recorded much of the music in the Catskill mountains, which imbued the sessions with their own atmosphere. "You've got the 1920s buildings with porches, you've got mountains, deer, hawks, chipmunks – a bat even came in the studio one night!" Vocals were recorded separately in Glasgow. And this time, both singers were in the same studio, Campbell having succeeded in tempting Lanegan to leave his adopted home of LA and join her in her home town. Yet she confesses: "He still kind of sung it in, even though we were in the same room. His contribution to this record was nine days in Glasgow – and mine was two years." Campbell made the most of her opportunity, too: "It was good to be able to direct him and make him sing 16 takes of every song," she laughs. "All the time I was thinking: he's here now and I don't know when I might see him again."
Despite their surface differences, Campbell insists that she and Lanegan are similar souls, united by their unsociable natures. "I'm not really an amicable person and to be with someone who sometimes doesn't say anything is really nice for me. We have an unspoken connection. Neither of us really has friends, that's what we have in common. It's not like we're buddies but we have a definite empathy. There is some kind of understanding."
Not only when they sing, but also in their photographs together, it seems as if they are simultaneously together and yet apart. Even though Campbell flew to America and donned her best cowboy shirt for the occasion, the distance between them – geographical and emotional – only seems emphasised by her cool confidence and his silent detachment, their eyes not meeting each other's, nor the camera's lens.
But there is no doubt that their collaboration is creatively fertile. "When we're on stage everything seems to make sense," she declares. "Singing with Mark feels so special to me, like a religious experience. It makes me happy. I love his voice, I love singing with him, I love writing for him, and I genuinely love him singing my songs. People don't say enough things like that these days – everyone's got an angle. What about good music?"
She adds: "He's quieter than ever these days, but I'm
quite an accepting person and if he doesn't want to talk, that's fine.
He may be quiet but at least he's not fake. And also," she says,
"I genuinely really like him."
"Mark was in Glasgow for nine days doing vocals, but I was writing these songs for two years."
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan have just released their second album, Sunday At Devil Dirt, which deserves to match the acclaim of the Mercury-nominated Ballad Of The Broken Seas.
"It was kinda the same again to write this album," says Isobel. "Nine days from two years isn't a lot."
During those nine days, Mark was permanently excited.
"He's a big folk fan, with excellent taste in music," enthuses Isobel. "He likes that, when we tour, it's quieter. That's a challenge for Mark, because on my songs his voice is really up there. It's not buried in other instruments.
"Whenever I give him songs, he's really excited. He tells me 'Ah, I'm like a kid at Christmas.'"
How hard is it to write for a man?
"I can hear a voice when I'm writing a melody," shrugs Isobel, 32. "I've got a good imagination, whether I'm writing for a man or a woman.
"I can get in other people's shoes quite easily. It's fun to explore that creative side when you're writing on your own. That and playing live are the most enjoyable side, it's perfecting the songs in a studio that's hard."
Greg Dulli told us recently he found it hard at first to write for Mark's vocal register on their Gutter Twins album.
"I never found that," says Isobel. "But then I never even considered Mark's range when I started writing for him.
"Some things were sheer luck, that his voice was so suitable. There were a couple of times on this record when I'd alter things, but generally we have an unspoken sensitivity with each other."
Isobel isn't sure if the pair will make a third album.
"This one sucked the life out of me," she admits. "Maybe I'm just a bit slow, but it took the life right out of me. We finished it in mid-Decmeber and I was ill for two months afterwards.
"It was quite harsh, sat on my own with an engineer producing it, and my stomach was in knots. I don't know if I could do that again."
Isobel would love to write for other musicians, with Dolly Parton her dream.
"Artists are a fickle bunch and I'm not going to go to the mountain," she says.
"I'm a bit of an old grump, I like the solitude of
writing. I've no doubt someone will be in my Inbox one day asking me to
write for them. It happened with Mark. And if it doesn't, I can have that
peace and quiet that I never seem to get."
Ding Ding! Round two. Having successfully erased any lats vestiges of her cutesy pie Belle & Sebastian past with the Mercury-nominated "Ballad Of The Broken Seas", Isobel Campbell knocks again on the door of gravel-voice-for-hire Mark Lanegan for another stab at becoming the '00s Nancy and Lee. But if that previous album was a little shaky in execution - the result of a transatlantic recording process and emailing MP3's back and forth - then "Sunday At Devil Dirt" is a far more complete and confident collaboration.
Not that there are any huge stylistic departures. "Seafaring Song" ambles in on a "House Of The Rising Sun" guitar motif, with Lanegan's tar black tones - part Nick Cave, part Tom Waits - and a desolate nautical theme complemented by Campbell's siren whisp of a voice. Akin to Robert Mitchum's depiction of 'preacher' Harry Powell in "Night Of The Hunter" scaring Tinkerbell in the dark, the two don't so much trade lines as inhabit the same breath. In the background lonely strings and accordion swell delicately along.
This blueprint, with Lanegan hogging centre stage, is repeated on at least 10 of the 12 tracks here - to the point where this is arguably his solo vehicle. No bad thing, as it happens. However, despite the confused billing, some over-egging it with the backing effects and, at times, an almost comically creepy presentation (particularly, the OTT horror movie posturing of "The Raven" and the Big Bad Wolf he's behind you! pantomime of "Back Burner") their chemistry remains intuitive and electric.
"Shotgun Blues", one of the handful of tracks Campbell dominates, literally sizzles on a bed of broken slide guitar. "Ohhh Daddy, I love to hear you moan," she coos, somewhat licentiously, sending the anorak-wearing Pastel fraternity straight for the cold shower in the process. "Shotgun Blues" also marks a turning point for the album, away from over-zealous instrumentation and layered atmospherics, towards four of the purest, most unadorned nuggets of perfection that you're likely to hear this year.
The home run of "Keep Me In Mind Sweetheart",
"Something To Believe", "Trouble" and "Sally
Don't You Cry" are all about first-take campfire simplicity and are
as honest, genuine, timeless and affecting as any of Johnny Cash's American
Recordings. Reduced to such a four-track EP, "Sunday At Devil Dirt"
would have touched the godhead. As it is, this is a hugely satisfying
follow-up to one of 2006's surprise packages and one with enough diamonds
in the dust to net the listener a small fortune in reward.