Friday, January 28, 2005


As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 28, 2004

These CDs have been out for several months now. But I just recently laid my hands on the first one, while the second one took awhile to grow on me.

To paraphrase Orson Welles, I will review no album before its time.

*Bubblegum by Mark Lanegan. This ain’t your father’s “bubblegum” music. Lanegan doesn’t chirp, “yummy yummy yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy.” Not even once.

“When I’m bombed I stretch like bubblegum/And look too long straight at the morning sun,” Lanegan sings on a deceptively quiet, acoustic tune called “Bombed.” This duet with Wendy Rae Fowler is barely over a minute along.

It sounds like a funeral dirge. It sounds as if someone could get killed at any minute.

Like Lanegan‘s best solo work, Bubblegum is a testament of pain, druggy desire, and 4 a.m. lonely ache. It’s a blues-drenched, ghostly, dark-night-of-the-soul meditation that’s not ashamed to be pretty but not afraid to wake the neighbors with furious clatter when the spirit says “roar.”

Lanegan was the singer with long-defunct Washington state grunge warriors the Screaming Trees. He’s also served stints with Queens of the Stone Age and with Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers. He also deserves at least a footnote in the history of rock ‘n’ roll for being the guy who introduced Kurt Cobain to Lead belly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.”

The record is billed as being by “Mark Lanegan Band,” and indeed he’s got an impressive, revolving gaggle of sidemen on Bubblegum. P.J. Harvey sings with Lanegan on two songs, here. Dulli and QOTSA members appear on some cuts, as do Izzy and Duff from Guns n' Roses. And Texas-born psychedelic blues wizard Ian Moore and keyboardist Bukka Allen (Terry and Jo Harvey Allen’s son) lend their talents to one tune.

But Lanegan himself is the driving presence here on every single cut. The dark vision is all his. The constant that runs throughout is his voice, a gravelly, whiskey ravaged -- and probably worse-things-ravaged -- baritone that sounds like the moans of a hobo prophet halfway between a trance and a righteous rage.

Drug addiction, that grim subtext of so much classic Seattle music, is a theme in several tunes here. It’s obvious in songs like “Methamphetamine Blues,” a crunching workout with clanking industrial percussion and screaming guitar (by Alain Johannes). And Lanegan rocks even harder and the chemical desperation is even more frantic in the crazed “Can’t Come Down.”

But the drug life even more disturbing in the song called “Wedding Dress,” a somber, synth-driven tune where Lanegan croons, “Will you walk with me underground and forgive all my sicknesses and my sorrows?/Will you be shamed if shake like I’m dyin’/when I fall to my knees and I’m cryin’?” The tune ends with a line borrowed from “Jackson,” the comic Johnny Cash/June Carter (or Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazelwood) song of marital strife. But here the words “We got married in a fever” take on ominous connotations.

Lanegan explores the dark side of the blues with “Like Little Willie John” He invokes the name of the tragic R&B pioneer, who died in a Washington state prison in 1968. Here, the ghost of Little Willie hovers over the singer’s troubling memories of losing a lover.

“All she ever knew was trouble/And for much I was to blame/But when I heard the news that night/I went down like a satellite/ And when my world stood still that night/I dropped like a satellite … Where’s Willie John?”

Lou Reed once pointed out that had he personally done all the things he sang about, he’d have been dead years before. I suspect this probably is true of Lanegan as well. But his voice is authoritative as his stories are compelling. And his music, whether soft and smoky or loud and dissonant, is irresistible.

*Dents and Shells by Richard Buckner. This is a guy who makes strange, but undeniably beautiful music. What can you say about a guy who did a whole album based on Edgar Lee Masters’ small-town gothic Spoon River Anthology? (not separate songs, mind you, but one 34-minute track!)

Buckner’s melodies are mournful, his delivery low-key, his lyrics introspective and often obscure. His voice is a slightly raspy drawl that often colors and embellishes the notes. His songs sometimes seem like snippets from a notebook, not quite finished, but refusing to stay put.

In many ways this album reminds me of the first Buckner CD I heard, the magnificent Devotion + Doubt. That mid-90s effort -- still my favorite Buckner album and a fan favorite in the then-blooming alternative country scene -- was produced by Lubbock Mafia chieftain Lloyd Maines and featured members of Calexico.

Like Devotion, Dents and Shells features lots of fine steel guitar, especially on the songs “A Chance Counsel” and “Her” -- though the latter tune also is distinguished by a catchy one-finger piano.

Some song arrangements here border on the surreal. “Charmers” for instance is a tense minor-key funeral march in which most the instruments seem to melt into a low rumble behind Buckner’s vocals Butthole Surfer King Coffey’s over-caffeinated drums. This almost could be a Will Oldham/Palace song.

“As the Waves Will Always Roll” is a sad dirge that features what sounds like a roller rink organ and downright crazy drumming from Coffey.

Buckner’s music is pretty enough to appeal to singer/songwriter fans and odd enough to satisfy those looking for more experimental sounds.

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