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Blackberry Belle –

Review of Mark Lanegan’s “Here Comes that Weird Chill” and “Blackberry Belle.”

By Kevin Forest Moreau


Although they fronted very different bands during the alt-rock heyday of the early-mid ’90s, Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli have long shared oddly complementary elements of a larger aesthetic. As the voice of Seattle’s Screaming Trees, and as a solo artist, Lanegan has perfected a gruff, whiskey-coated croak, equally suited to the Trees’ psychedelic (Uncle Anesthesia), brawny (Sweet Oblivion) and contemplative (Dust) sides and the darker, folk-and-blues-based explorations of solo efforts like the sublime Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. Dulli, meanwhile, contrasted Lanegan’s growling baritone with a more honeyed croon, mixing sly, seductive come-ons with unironic, heartfelt pathos; with the Whigs, he often sounded like nothing so much as Bono’s grunge-era offspring, infusing punk rock with a slow-burning soul sensibility, wearing his lacerated heart on his sleeve with all the solipsistic wonder of a Tim Kasher or Chris Carrabba.

What’s tied these two distinct personas together is a shared hedonistic imagery (booze, cigarettes, swirling smoke and loose women) as well as a similar underlying restlessness. The approaches were different — Dulli reveled in the chaotic messiness of dissolving relationships and personal traumas, while Lanegan poured his uncertainty, anger and hard-won wisdom into evocative folk ballads and muscular howls – but one always sensed their questing spirits underneath.

On Here Comes That Weird Chill — originally intended as an extended single from his forthcoming full-length, expanded into a handful of outtakes — Lanegan shows that that spirit still lives inside him. Shrugging off the more austere vibe of his last solo album, 2001’s Field Songs, and its covers predecessor I’ll Take Care of You, Lanegan embraces basic, guitar-driven rock, perhaps fueled by his collaboration with Queens of the Stone Age (whose principals, Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri, make guest appearances — as does Dulli). Here, he enlivens his bourbon-baroque songwriting with a broader musical palette, from the Tom Waits clangor of “Methamphetamine Blues” to the visceral imagery of “Skeletal History.”

The elegiac piano ballad “Lexington Slowdown” finds Lanegan giving voice to psychic demons (“This place starts swinging when it’s me on the noose”) and regrets (“Spare me a chance / I’ve wasted mine”), while a cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Clear Spot” pulses and squirms with all the exultant bizarro disquiet of the original. On “Message to Mine,” Lanegan revisits the melodic crooning that marked his last couple of Screaming Trees albums; it sounds like an artifact from solo efforts The Winding Sheet or Scraps at Midnight. Throughout, the singer sounds more focused than he has in at least five years, and his decision to record as the “Mark Lanegan Band” suggests a desire to play with, if not reinvent, his sound, approach and image. Just under half an hour in length, this collection of scraps bodes well for the future.

For Dulli, however, the future is already here, and like Lanegan’s glimpse, it’s filled with familiar echoes stretching into more evolved forms. Blackberry Belle largely forsakes the languid, electronica-tinged atmospherics of 2000’s Twilight as Played By the Twilight Singers, Dulli’s first record under the moniker, although it bears ample traces of that disc’s slow, sensual pace. This being Dulli’s first recording since the official disbanding of Afghan Whigs, Blackberry Belle asserts The Twilight Singers as Dulli’s new musical alter ego, and incorporates some of the Whigs’ soul-rock shadings. “Teenage Wristband” glides from tinkling piano to a sweeping rush reminiscent of classic U2; the more deliberate “The Killer” and the punchy “Decatur St.” likewise come to life with spirited choruses. “Feathers,” meanwhile, percolates with the funk percussion of Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, in contrast to the basic instrumentation of the soft, ruminative “Follow You Down.”

The album’s clear highlight, however, is the closing “Number Nine,” in which Dulli and guest vocalist Lanegan perfectly meld their sensibilities. The steadily building ballad, rife — as is all of Belle — with Dulli’s trademarked yin-yang pendulum swing of carnal heat and existential yearning, draws the center line between the two artists’ reciprocal touchstones of longing and regret; the intertwining of spiritual and libidinous desires that permeate both artists’ most affecting work. Given recent news of an upcoming full-length collaboration between the two, “Number Nine” offers a tantalizing glimpse of what lies ahead for both singers, all the more intriguing given the experiments in expanding the scope of their signature voices on these absorbing discs.

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