Fans of Scottish indie band Belle & Sebastian know Isobel Campbell well. Playing cello and singing backup vocals, Isobel was a member of the band for seven years before departing to do other projects including albums with the band The Gentle Waves and solo work, including her 2003 album Amorino.
On her latest Ballad Of The Broken Seas, Isobel joins former Screaming Trees and Queens Of The Stone Age member Mark Lanegan for a full album, releasing an EP – Ramblin’ Man – late last year. The result is a somber, yet reflective experience of country and folk sensibility. The opening track “Deus Ibi Est” sets the mood with the sudden juxtaposition between two voices on opposite sides of the tone spectrum. Mark is immediately recognizable with his deep and raspy voice that only Tom Waits fans could appreciate. Isobel contrasts Mark with her graceful and sometimes angelic voice, as heard in the tender lullaby-esque “Dusty Wreath.” Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to get away with being inaudible or not even singing words. The song just barely passes in gliding towards the album’s end.
The two move between duets that reflect their contrasting voices as in “The False Husband” and duets that best compliment their similar tones as in “Ballad Of The Broken Seas.” They aim for simplicity, using minimal instrumentation, especially in “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?” with just an acoustic guitar and vocals. Mark comes across as a father singing with his daughter, trying to teach her to express herself little by little.
Isobel tries to express herself, but doesn’t seem completely comfortable doing so. Her first solo, “Black Mountain,” is gentle, but not forceful enough to keep the listener from getting caught up in the haunting guitar melody. Maybe it’s because her voice itself is haunting too, enabling her to prowl without the least bit of worry; she stalks slowly but casually in the bossa nova-like “Saturday’s Gone.”
Mark, on the other hand, never walks the same way that Isobel does, always calm — but not always firm — in his patterns. His voice exudes the perfect character for many of the songs, creating a pitch perfect blend of a man who inflicts and takes wounds on a daily basis in Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” and of a man eager and hurt to leave in “The Circus Is Leaving Town.”
Ballad Of Broken Seas is an appropriate title because it best describes how the album is. Despite the melancholic mood, Isobel and Mark move forward with their music, and that’s the best way to deal with sadness.