Even when they don’t work out artistically, oddball musical pairings are usually worth their weight in gold as entertainment—consider “Ebony and Ivory” or Jay-Z’s Linkin Park dalliance or any new-millennium Santana. On Sunday at Devil Dirt, the sensitive-chick/grizzled-rocker trend most recently exemplified by Krauss/Plant continues, thanks to Isobel Campbell (Belle and Sebastian’s most precocious alumna) and Mark Lanegan (the growly Seattle alt-rock veteran), with their once U.K.-only sophomore release finally coming Stateside now that nobody here can afford expensive imports anymore. But will it blend?
A worthy second album (following 2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas) would dispense entirely with the ain’t-it-cool factor, but unfortunately, these songs saunter and lope without ever really climaxing, as if each singer is afraid to stand on the other’s shoulders and do something dramatic. Although Devil Dirt has its rewarding moments, they’re usually matters of arrangement rather than execution or personality, which means it’s more about the chemistry of boy-meets-girl than about the specific boy or girl. That’s unfortunate, because both Lanegan and Campbell have tremendous track records that might congeal brilliantly if they’d just get over themselves and stop trying to coast on the strength of the premise.
It doesn’t help that this is such a lopsided affair. Aside from the awkward blues and her gorgeously deranged murmurs on “Come on Over (Turn Me On),” Campbell is relegated to a background role here, despite having written so much of the material. Instead, Lanegan dominates with a dreary drawl he might have yoinked from Leonard Cohen or Vic Chesnutt—a perfectly considerate move given that he’s working with one of the architects of twee-pop here. But for a guy best known for his work with whoop-ass rabble-rousers like Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, it’s a bit too far afield. Remember: It’s not really contrast if you hedge your bets first. Just ask Run-D.M.C. or Aerosmith.