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Music Reviews

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February 3, 2006
Symbolically speaking, the cardigan sweater might as well be the school uniform of twee-pop. According to Section 12, Article B of the indie-rock bylaws, if you play depressed, tenderhearted folk mixed with classic pop sounds from the 60s and elements of serious-minded chamber music, you are required to wear such garments in public. The cardigan just makes it that much easier to pigeonhole artists like Isobel Campbell.

The thing is, Campbell doesn't have to adhere to the dress code anymore. She left Belle And Sebastian, the beloved Scottish band that's synonymous with the genre, midway through a European summer festival tour in 2002, taking her lovely cello playing and her beautiful, whispery voice with her. "I knew that I really wanted to leave the group, but I didn't know what I was going to do. I thought I be a janitor or something. Eugene suggested that I could be a football mascot," said Campbell. Eugene is longtime Campbell collaborator Eugene Kelly, formerly of the Vaselines, Captain America and Eugenius, and football is "soccer" for the uneducated.

Since going solo, Campbell has made new friends like the former Screaming Trees howler Mark Lanegan and is trying her hand at - brace yourself - country. "I'm convinced Glen Campbell is one of my ancestors," said Isobel, laughing as she revealed her true musical love. "I love those Jimmy Webb songs like 'By The Time I Get To Phoenix.' It just feels so right to me. It's just my kind of music."

Guess that sweater was hiding a Johnny Cash t-shirt. "I love Bobby Gentry, Johnny Cash, the Carter family - and you know a lot of that comes from our side of the world," said Campbell, a native of Glasgow. The connection between the folk traditions of the British Isles and Appalachia is one Campbell explores deeply on Ballad Of The Broken Seas, the new album she recorded with Lanegan. The somber "Deus Ibi Est," a fearful portrayal of a man going off to war, and "Black Mountain" are examples of the kind of haunted acoustic balladry you'll find on Ballad Of The Broken Seas. Not one to get stuck in a rut, Campbell also shows her affection for the kind of hazy, psychedelic country output of Graham Parsons and the Lee Hazelwood-Nancy Sinatra partnership in "Saturday's Gone" and the irresistibly charming "Honey Child What Can I Do?"

In doing so, Campbell may be able to reach new audiences. "I've always liked the idea of making records for old people," said Campbell. "People like to put musicians in these tiny little boxes of categories, and I've always said, 'Fuck that.' If people don't like it, I'll go off and teach or something." It's jarring to hear such blunt talk from Campbell, famed for her sweet, angelic voice and beautiful cello playing. Prone to laughter and easy conversation, Campbell seems to have the disposition and generous nature of a saint. But she also appreciates honesty, and that's why she says she and Lanegan get along so well together.

The two actually collaborated before they met face to face. Campbell was recording an EP of originals and one of the songs was a male-female duet that wasn't working. The problem was Kelly, who didn't have the voice for it. She wanted someone with a gruffer vocal quality. A former boyfriend had someone in mind. "I thought, 'Oh shit, what is he going to play me now,'" said Campbell. It was Lanegan. "He was talking about the Screaming Trees, and I had never heard of them," said Campbell, "but he played it for me and I heard that voice, and I thought, 'That's really something.'"

Campbell sent Lanegan a half-written song and never expected to hear back from him. "I forgot about it," said Campbell. "Then a few months later, he'd written more words to the song, and we got on the phone and had a chat." Before she knew it, they were talking about doing an album together. "I loved his voice," said Campbell. "I had written another duet called 'The False Husband' and I was hoping he'd do it, and he came back and said, 'We should do an album together.''

In time, Campbell and Lanegan finally saw each other. Lanegan was on tour with Queens Of The Stone Age and when the band played Scotland, he called her up and invited her to the show. She wasn't sure what to expect and admits to being a little wary. "I guess anyone would be that way," said Campbell. "But he couldn't have been friendlier. It was kind of surreal. The whole thing's a little surreal I suppose, but I guess that's the way it is when you're making a record with someone you never see."

What strikes you immediately about Ballad Of The Broken Seas is the level of intimacy between Campbell and Lanegan. "I knew from the first minute I spoke to Mark that we'd get along," said Campbell. "I like a weird combination of people, but you can usually tell the people you're going to get along with straight away. What I like about Mark is his openness and honesty." On the record, they sound like husband and wife trying to navigate a relationship filled with sorrow and longing. "He has a lot of sadness in his voice," said Campbell. "I do too." Given how close they seem, it's hard to believe that so much of the record was made while they were apart, living on different continents. "We kind of Fed Ex'ed it," said Campbell. "We had one day in the studio in L.A. I was kind of happy about that. I like the quiet life. I'm known as a talker, but I like living the quiet life."

Much of Campbell's life is spent at home, doing mundane chores. An idea came to her while doing housework that led to a surprising cover song for the album, Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man." "I was really into Hank Williams, and reading about him and listening to his music," said Campbell. "One day I was watering my plants and listening to that song, and I started singing the counter melody." Immediately, she thought of Lanegan and wondered if he'd be game for it. "I thought maybe he'd think it was corny, but he didn't," said Campbell, whose version is more wicked and rollicking than the Williams' original. "It's weird because Hank Williams' version is more straight ahead," explained Campbell. "I think when we started playing it on guitar it got that way. I don't know where I got the whip from, but I like that Rawhide feel and the train sounds. I really like Ennio Morricone and I'm a huge Tom Waits fan, and I like those quirky accents. I think it's menacing but fun at the same time."

In the end, Campbell wanted the record to sound a certain way. "I had two words in my head: classic and timeless." She sees it having a cinematic feel, like an old Western starring Jimmy Stewart or Lee Marvin. "I was jittery about the album," said Campbell. "I thought, 'I hope at least a few people buy it.' But I thought, 'I don't care, I love it,' and Mark said, 'I love it too.'"

With the exception of the Lanegan penned number "Revolver," Campbell wrote the whole record herself, working the chords out on guitar after going off and writing without the use of instruments. But every note was marked down with Lanegan in mind. "He really tried to find his place in the songs, and he did a good job of that," said Campbell. Lyrically, Campbell simply tried to tell stories, but she did so from a male perspective. "I've always felt in touch with my male side," she said. It just so happened that Lanegan's voice was tailor made for the subject matter. "It would be fair to say that over the years I've had the wool pulled over my eyes," said Campbell. "Writing this record was about taking off those rose-colored specs." The song "The False Husband" was different. That was written especially for Lanegan and his gravelly voice, but otherwise, Campbell wrote according to her own admittedly selfish whim. "The music really suits him," said Campbell. "But I couldn't really write lyrics with him in mind. I was too ignorant of his body of work. Now, I could write a thesis on Bubblegum."

Ballad Of The Broken Seas isn't the only release Campbell has scheduled for 2006. Milk White Sheets is due out later this year. "It's half traditional songs, half new songs of mine," said Campbell. "It's kind of dark and quite female, inspired by the moon and mother earth. It's got a Pagan quality to it. It's a bit witchy poo." As for the future, Campbell isn't ruling out any more duets. "I'd love to," she said. "I like working with the best people. I'm just not very good at schmoozing. But I like duets because it allows to create something, kind of like in Frankenstein." Only I don't see any villagers with torches coming to destroy her creation.

SEE ALSO: www.isobelcampbell.com
SEE ALSO: www.v2music.com

--
Peter Lindblad
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.

See other articles by Peter Lindblad.

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