Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan Sunday at Devil Dirt

[V2/Fontana International; 2009]

Styles: indie rock
Others: The Gutter Twins, Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra, Tom Waits

These days, my grandpa is throwing around the term postmodern as liberally as he salts his potatoes, and yet people still get all funny about authenticity in pop music. Perhaps it’s a natural reaction to the immediacy of the art form. Groups as wide ranging as folkies, punks, and b-boys have all in one way or another stressed the importance of being earnest; and from Robert Zimmerman to John Lydon, they’ve crowned a bunch of actors and swindlers. And those celebrated poseurs came well before Wikipedia made anyone in the developed world exactly as in-the-know as her next Google search.

If Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan proceed with enough self-awareness to sidestep such quibbling, a cloud of confused identity still hovers uneasily over Sunday at Devil Dirt. Even more so than Ballad of the Broken Seas, their Mercury Award-winning first collaboration, Sunday at Devil Dirt is deadpan homage. An homage to what, exactly? If the oldish, slightly weird Americana on this record ever had its roots in the real more than the ideal, well that reality floated away with the dust long ago. Rather, Devil Dirt is a loving ode to a particular pop chromosome that manifests itself in a lot of Tom Waits, some Dylan, the Johnny Cash/Rick Rubin records. When Lee Hazlewood was engineering this sound, some dubbed it “cowboy psychedelia,” which suggests its kitschy theatrical underpinnings. “Tumbleweed gothic” might be more descriptive here, and isn’t it just perfect that this project is the brain baby of a retiring Scottish woman?

On their collaborations, Campbell and Lanegan are not out to subvert or deconstruct as much as stretch their own talents to fit a template. Naturally, some of their own personal quirks and modern sensibilities get thrown into the stew. It’s more Scream than Godard, if you will. And there are certain caveats it conforms to. Take the archaic language on “The Raven,” where Poe’s great symbol of inexpressible dread is transformed into a lusty hot “damsel”: “None of my lifetime ever seen a beast so rare” Lanegan gutturalizes. The repeated juxtaposition of Shakespeare-in-the-park syntax with blunt sentiment is silly in an off-putting way. In the Francophonic “Come on Over (Turn me on),” the two play cat and mouse with single entendres like “Sunday best, you’re my favorite suit” that sound meek and unimaginative compared to the old time odes to jelly roll. The world of Devil Dirt is peopled with blind men, chain gangs, and brawlers.

Some of this is funny, like the title. Mostly, though, they play it straight, relying largely on Marlboro Man Lanegan’s stony baritone for forced gravitas. When Campbell chimes in to play seductive foil, her airy vocals are coy like an art-school Madonna, not coy like a blushing American Whore. In total, it sort of feels like Campbell and Lanegan want to be on the balcony and in the party at the same time, and so succeed at neither. That being said, the instrumentation is warm and simple, and the stateside release includes four solid bonus tracks that elicit the strangely comforting feeling that this could go on forever. After all, just because the America they invoke never existed doesn’t mean it also isn’t eternal.

1. Seafaring Song
2. The Raven
3. Salvation
4. Who Built the Road
5. Come on Over (Turn Me On)
6. Back Burner
7. The Flame That Burns
8. Shot Gun Blues
9. Keep Me in Mind Sweetheart
10. Something to Believe
11. Trouble
12. Sally Don't You Cry

Most Read