Live: Former Belle & Sebastian Singer Isobel Campbell Discusses Her NCAA Brackets

isobelcampbell.jpgI don't know whose thumb this is, but whoever he is he's pretty creepy

Isobel Campbell + The Essex Green + Lewis & Clarke Southpaw March 15, 2006

It's been a shockingly great couple of months for records from pretty female indie-rock singer-songwriter types with slight country leanings and immaculate production: Cat Power, Jenny Lewis, Neko Case; even the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album sort of fits. I haven't yet decided whether it's the best, but certainly the most striking of this batch of albums is Ballad of Broken Seas, the new joint from former Belle and Sebastian warbler Isobel Campbell and non-female ex-Screaming Trees guy Mark Lanegan. I said so in my write-up of B&S's Nokia Theater show a couple of weeks back, but it bears repeating: the new B&S is pretty good, but it can't even step to Ballad of Broken Seas. This isn't exactly the first thing I would've expected from Campbell, who left B&S and then spent a couple of years leading Gentle Waves, a less pretty and more irritatingly perky version of her old band. After the second Gentle Waves joint, I stopped checking for Campbell. So Ballad registered as a shock, a gorgeously dark and woozy sensualist record, all underwater guitars and heartbeat drums and negative space, Lanegan's dusky baritone mutter perfectly offsetting Campbell's airy wisp of a voice. The obvious touchstone is the stuff that Lee Hazlewood did with Nancy Sinatra, but Campbell and Lanegan's record has a lazier, more pastoral feel; it's tossed-off rather than dug-out (and it's not as good, but not much is).

I was a bit worried that Campbell wouldn't be able to pull this stuff off live without Lanegan, but she found a simple and effective way to solve that problem: hiring a backup singer who sounds exactly like Lanegan to sing all of Lanegan's parts. (She introduced him at one point, but she did it quietly enough that I couldn't hear the guy's name. Maybe it was Lanegan's uncle or something.) Onstage at Southpaw last night, Campbell looked like she'd stepped off a movie screen, dressed all in black with her hair vividly blonde and her back to the audience for the first part of the set, the air around her somehow looking all fuzzy. Early on, she didn't say anything to the audience beyond "thanks," and her voice sounded ridiculously great, on some Julee Cruise Twin Peaks shit over her band's hushed, spacey creak. I especially liked the drummer, who sometimes played congas and sometimes limited himself to a few impeccably restrained tom hits. Things got a little too fey when the fake Lanegan left the stage for a few songs in the middle of the set; when Campbell doesn't have a ballast, her voice is too light. When the guy returned, though, the two duetted on an insanely beautiful cover of "Love Hurts," easily the highlight of the show. Later on, Campbell brought out her cello; on one instrumental song, she did this great interweaving thing with a pedal steel. She ended the set with a couple of genuine rock songs, heavier than anything on Ballad of Broken Seas. I like where she's going.

As openers, the Essex Green would've been a lot better-suited to B&S's current chirpy show-tune phase than they were to Campbell; like B&S, they do a twee, jangly 60s-ish power-pop that manages to be both boring and pleasant. They were nice enough, especially during a few wordless ahh-ahh-ahh pre-chorus bits, but I can't imagine ever loving them; they're way too polite. We also got Lewis & Clarke, which is apparently one dude, a beardy solo acoustic guy who plays loose, meandering, vaguely Jeff Buckley folky stuff. This kind of guy seems to mostly exist just so audience chatter can totally drown him out and you can feel embarrassed for him and clap between songs even if you don't much like him. He did, however, give me a chance to go outside and buy an orange Powerade and spot the guy who played Brenda's brother on Six Feet Under, so I'm not especially mad.

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