Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, Barbican Centre, London
Wednesday 15 September 2010
She comes over like Little Bo Peep, minus the staff. Her voice is ethereal, her dress cutesy. From time to time she switches roles from vocalist to cellist. She is given to wandering about the stage, lost in her own thoughts.
His appearance in blue denim is almost exaggeratedly plain, and he stands virtually stock still throughout. He has a manliness reminiscent of Sam Shepard. He deals only in essentials, and the essence of him is a transfixing baritone that edges into Tom Waits territory in one direction, Leonard Cohen in another.
Isobel Campbell, the Scotswoman once of Belle and Sebastian, and Mark Lanegan, the American once of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, are pop's odd couple of the moment, sometimes compared to Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.
Their third album, Hawk, has just been released – a work of both refinement and mystery that shows their command of a range of idioms, from lounge music and roadhouse blues to hypnotic ballads and bleak evocations of landscapes last glimpsed in a David Lynch movie – until you realise that the pair are singing about a train journey from King's Cross.
In containing the line, "Our banks foreclose, our fortunes fade", "We Die and See Beauty Reign" may be the only example of the financial crisis viewed with serene detachment. By contrast, the stately, circular rhythms of the soul-tinged "Come Undone" belie some very raw emotions, and "Snake Song", driven along by an insistent steel guitar, carries a distinct whiff of danger. And then the mood switches with "Eyes of Green", a jaunty burst of what sounds like centuries-old English folk.
Campbell also performs some lovely solo numbers – including, in the epic "To Hell and Back", a song of which her fellow Glaswegians The Jesus and Mary Chain would have been proud.
A technically flawless show - the duo had a top-notch backing band – there was nonetheless something less than wholly satisfying about it. At times the music was just a little too studied, and Lanegan in particular is a performer who keeps his distance, both from the audience and indeed, it seemed, from his singing partner. A fine evening, but maybe turn up the heating a bit next time?
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