Strange bedfellows can produce the sexiest of couplings. When Isobel Campbell, cellist from Glasgow’s fey popsters Belle and Sebastian, announced she was collaborating with Mark Lanegan, growling survivor of alt-rock Seattle, eyebrows were raised. Yet their album, Ballad of the Broken Seas, a light-and-shade shuffle of lost highway blues, worked wonders. It was nominated for last year’s Mercury Music Prize.
Nancy Sinatra’s and Lee Hazelwood’s twangy country symphonies are the obvious precedent for this beauty-and-the-beast pairing. At their long-awaited London show, Campbell and Lanegan offer a splendid cover of “Sand”, their forebears’ “wandering man” song of 1966. But there’s nothing monstrous about Lanegan’s richly doleful vocals. Tender and wounded, he’s the badly-done-by wolf to Campbell’s cooing, Left-Bankish Little Red. With the latter wearing the trousers for most of the writing and production, the roles of Nancy and Lee are somewhat reversed.
I bet it was Campbell’s idea to crack an audible whip during their smudged and woozy version of Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man”, a highlight of the record and their inevitable encore here. Live, however, that motel-room danger rather went out of the relationship. It was like meeting for coffee after a one-night stand: you sensed the awkwardness of intimacy going public. Not that the packed crowd minded. Fans have waited almost 12 months to see these two on the same stage.
For much of the time, Campbell seemed hesitant, even klutzy – “I feel like a dork in this outfit,” she confessed. Her thigh-high boots were made for strutting, but it was only after encouraging us to clap along to a new song that she felt free to groove. As her solo numbers meandered, she was happiest when her man came around, and with good reason.
Lanegan had the presence of a mountain peak and the timbre of late-period Johnny Cash. Songs from his own back catalogue, “Carry Home” and “I’ll Take Care of You”, proved apt choices. Bass reverb and a tombstone tempo often obscured Campbell’s string parts, but the acoustic “Do You Wanna Come Walk with Me?” became a delightful prairie tryst before the odd couple rambled off. ★★★☆☆
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