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Thursday, Dec. 29, 2005 05:10 am

Long-distance relationship

Physical proximity, it would seem, is overrated

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Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan Ramblin’ Man (V2)

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan
RamblinÂ’ Man
(V2)

Who says long-distance relationships never work? Despite being separated by some 8,000 miles, Isobel Campbell, of Glasgow, and Mark Lanegan, of Los Angeles, have brought us Ramblin’ Man, a four-song collaboration that wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet (tsk, tsk — and you thought it was all about the free porn!). Campbell, former cellist/chanteuse of Belle & Sebastian, and Lanegan, ex-singer of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, met in Glasgow, where Lanegan, on tour with the latter band, suggested that they make an album together. For the most part, the pair traded tracks by e-mail, although they did manage to be in the same studio at the same time for a few recordings. Given that it’s impossible for the listener to guess which songs were recorded with the principals together, physical proximity, it would seem, is overrated. Although the twee diva and the glowering howler might seem incompatible at first, the EP proves that they bring out the best in each other. Whereas Lanegan’s craggy rumble and doomy, dark-prince proclivities have, at times, verged on the parodic, and Campbell’s little-girl lilt could, after prolonged exposure, precipitate a hyperglycemic coma (or at least a raging toothache), each singer’s strengths counteract the other’s flaws. With Lanegan, Campbell has never sounded sexier or more grown-up; with Campbell, Lanegan has never sounded more human. Their joint effort evokes the masculin/féminin, beauty/beast polarities of classic ’60s albums by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot or Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra — almost cartoonishly gendered, sexy in a way that’s politically suspect, the sonic equivalent of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. 
Take the opening track, a spare, ingenious, and deeply naughty cover of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man.” As Lanegan lusts for the open road, Campbell coos an almost subliminal countermelody devoted to the allure of her kitchen and bedroom. Granted, the struggle between noble itinerant and domestic siren is as old as time itself (or at least as old as The Lockhorns), but the hoary stereotypes are leavened by the contrast between Lanegan’s implacable self-importance and Campbell’s wheedling availability, a playful dichotomy punctuated by the sound of a cracking whip. No less appealing is “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk with Me,” a Campbell original that pairs winsome harmonies with lyrics that straddle the line between tender and tawdry. Campbell sings alone on the two remaining tracks, the Lanegan-penned “Revolver Pt. 2” and the traditional country-blues number “St. James Infirmary”; although the songs are pleasant enough, they lack the frisky frisson of the preceding duets. Nevertheless, the EP seems too short, and as an amuse-bouche it fulfills its purpose, leaving the listener hungry for more. As luck would have it, the duo’s debut full-length, Ballad of the Broken Seas, is scheduled for a spring 2006 release.

Cass McCombs
PREfection
(Monitor/4AD)

On PREfection, his second album, enigmatic troubadour Cass McCombs invokes a wide array of indie-rock/guitar-pop influences without resorting to rank pastiche. Traces of ’80s icons Echo and the Bunnymen, the Go-Betweens, and the Stone Roses dovetail surprisingly well with Radioheadesque experimentation, and the lyrics strike the right balance between oblique and ingenuous. In McCombs’ compact and oddly compelling universe, Motown and Manchester are just a heartbeat apart, and unexpected confluences form among unlikely tributaries. There’s something uniquely satisfying in the way that “Subtraction” anchors a soaring shoegazer anthem with a time-tested Bo Diddley beat, the way that “Bury Mary” combines Velvet Underground jangle with Soft Boys snarl. McCombs isn’t breaking any new ground, to be sure, but few contemporary singer/songwriters cover the same terrain so competently.
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