Friday, March 18, 2005

Mark Lanegan Band – Bubblegum (Beggars Banquet)
“What you got coming is hard to swallow,” sings the man right into my ear. Mark Lanegan is a heavy dude, and one of my favourite vocalists. His voice is pained but never pitiful, murderously earnest yet never melodramatic. He commits to the material like Nick Cave or Peter Hammill, and I have to believe every syllable. He used to sing for Ellensburg, WA’s Screaming Trees, an ultra-prolific, occasionally brilliant band who took the indie-to-major label ride in the early ’90s. They signed to Sony/Epic and had a minor hit with “Nearly Lost You”. In 1990, while still with the Trees, Lanegan released his first solo album, The Winding Sheet—a dour, depressive masterpiece, and arguably the best album Sub Pop ever put out. I followed Lanegan for his next couple of solo releases, then lost track of him until he turned up on QotSA’s Songs for the Deaf a couple years ago. He seems to have migrated to California and fallen in with Josh Homme’s desert rock gang. He still has that Pacific Northwest blues sound happening, a combination of gritty, terse songwriting and Lanegan’s single-malt-and-cigarettes voice. The resulting atmosphere brings to mind rain, grimy dockyards, stale beer, and drugs. Bubblegum features Lanegan alongside Homme, Chris Goss (who worked with the Trees on their last album), Nick Oliveri, Polly Harvey, John Kastner (The Doughboys) and others. The Mark Lanegan Band’s lineup changes from song to song, with players dropping in and out as the arrangements require. Some songs are sparse, with a few chord changes, reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s wondrous third album. “Strange Religion” and “Morning Glory Wine” are songs that take basic constructions and carefully build upon them, with staggering results. “Wedding Dress” uses a mechanical sounding drum and bass line as a framework for the vocals, then unapologetically fades out when the idea’s been explored sufficiently. Lanegan and his crew also aren’t afraid to put up walls of sound, like on “Hit the City,” with Lanegan and Harvey singing in unison against a driving three-chord backdrop, or “Methamphetamine Blues,” which crams in as much soot-encrusted sound as possible. The four-on-the-floor, string-bending action of “Sideways in Reverse” roars away like The Stooges. But really, this album is all about voices. The singers accompanying Lanegan on these tunes—mixing and matching, complementing and contrasting—are what lends it a “band” feel. Whether it’s Chris Goss’s smooth tenor doubling Lanegan on “One Hundred Days” or PJ Harvey joining him on “Come to Me” and the aforementioned “Hit the City,” or Wendy Rae Fowler’s fragile contribution to the spooky and intimate “Bombed”, the variety of singers working alongside Lanegan are what makes this album so satisfying. Fifteen songs in 50 minutes fly by. Although I imagine Lanegan chose Bubblegum as an ironic title for this gloomy collection, it’s a pretty sweet thing to chew on.

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