Mark Lanegan Band: Phantom Radio

If there’s a constant in Mark Lanegan’s personal and professional life, it’s in his tendency to periodically flush out everything he knows. Booze, heroin, bands, and collaborators have all framed his existence with some kind of meaning and then been tossed out, sometimes returning, sometimes remaining dead and buried. Blues Funeral—Lanegan’s stubbornly against-type 2012 album, where he folded in, of all things, an impulse for electronica and a dash of New Romantic swagger—had started to look like an anomaly in his canon, a bungled attempt at channeling unlikely influences that were then left to drift into the pool of past-life identities he’s accumulated. His 2013 covers record, Imitations, drew on work by Greg Dulli, Nick Cave, Kurt Weill, and John Cale—in other words, exactly the sort of influences you’d expect the former Screaming Trees frontman to be channeling. But here he is with another album as the Mark Lanegan Band, which in part gets back to the feel he was chasing on Blues Funeral, albeit with a more assured hand ghosting through it.

The story behind Phantom Radio is of someone undergoing a unique conflict with his own past. On one hand it’s clear Lanegan wants to make a break from previous working methods, writing faster, more efficiently, and embracing technology by recording on his phone. But he still has a clutch of older influences on his shoulder that he’s determined to rinse out in song, including a wide array of styles from the ’80s and ’90s that were completely fenced off from his world in Screaming Trees. It’s not always the most palatable way to experience Lanegan, especially when he channels the MOR-hop of Morcheeba on “The Killing Season”, clumsily fusing it with lyrics that are straight out of his dead-eyed-drunk past (“I wear my old grey overcoat,” he growls, as the song fades to a close). Lanegan has never come across as someone who’s at ease with his past or present, so the heart of the struggle is familiar here, even if the tools aren’t. It makes sense that Kurt Cobain was an ally in the grunge era—both often came across as being remarkably uncomfortable in their own bodies on stage.

The common feel in a handful of songs here is one of mini symphonies, condensed down into pocket-sized works that create a juxtaposition between Lanegan’s large and small inclinations. “Harvest Home” is one of the strongest works from a lyrical perspective, but its execution is an odd mixture of flat, tinny beats and swooping synthesized strings. It’s a trick Lanegan likes to repeat. “Floor of the Ocean” has a similar uplift, undercut by a moodiness reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen circa “The Killing Moon”. On “Seventh Day”, there’s an airy, flute-driven ambience and a bed of electronics, none of which are elements most longstanding Lanegan fans probably ever expected him to be working with, but ones which he’s becoming increasingly at ease with judging from this album. “Waltzing in Blue” lands somewhere between the frigid melodrama of Joy Division and Beth Gibbons’ mournful darkness in Portishead, with Lanegan providing the perfect male flipside to her damaged wail.

Phantom Radio also provides plenty of moments that don’t startle, with a generous portion of it anchored in the stripped-down sinking feeling Lanegan has fitfully returned to since The Winding Sheet in 1990. He throws out “Judgement Time” early in the record, but it’s among his best on this collection, getting back to something resembling the blackness of “Eyes of a Child”, where the sheer coercion of his voice overwhelms from the second it’s introduced. It’s noticeable how Lanegan’s voice has become more brittle over the years, becoming less like a drunk preacher who’s going to gut you and eat you and more like someone quaking in fear of an insufferable end. On the similarly bare “I Am the Wolf” and “The Wild People” you can hear the quiver in his voice, feel the tremors in his hands. It’s not hard to conclude that this is the person Lanegan’s running from in his other material here, although one thing he is remarkably good at across his body of work is letting in disarming moments of vulnerability, where he pulls you in to spectate upon the wreck of his life. On Phantom Radio there are just a few too many times when it’s all dressed up in unnecessary complication.

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Xylouris White: Goats

On a superficial level, this collaboration between George Xylouris, a lauded lute player from Greece, and superb Australian post-punk drummer Jim White of the Dirty Three could be described as a cultural collision. But they work outside of their respective comfort zones, transcending geographical boundaries to the point where it’s tricky to know where they’re coming from.

Xylouris is the descendant of Greek music royalty. His uncle is Nikos Xylouris, a national icon whose nickname is “archangel of Crete” because his songs are hugely influential and beloved, and his dad is Antonis Xylouris, a.k.a. Psarandonis, a singer and lyra player who is well-regarded for pushing traditional folk music in new directions. George spent much of his childhood playing the lute and joining his father on his recordings and in concert; by using the lute as a lead instrument, George, too, challenges musical expectations. 

White’s background, on the other hand, is decidedly post-punk; he co-founded the Dirty Three with Warren Ellis and Mick Turner in the early-’90s and went on to collaborate with Will Oldham, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and many more. He’s a magnificent, multi-faceted, and sensitive drummer with the perfect mix of ferocity and finesse. 

In Xylouris White, the lute/drums configuration makes maps irrelevant, at various points recalling Indian, Eastern European, African, Middle Eastern, Western, and Mediterranean modes. There is jazz and punk here along with dashes of bluegrass, klezmer, and folk and yet it’s all conveyed seamlessly. At some points, Xylouris’ approach to the lute recalls prepared guitar or fingerstyle practitioners like Glenn Jones, himself a friend, follower, and collaborator of John Fahey. The searching and surprise of such exploration shines through in “Suburb”, a virtuoso performance, the lute bouncing back and forth between harmonic patterns and sturdy strumming, simultaneously meshing with found and traditional percussion accents. 

Within the sequence of the record, “Psarandonis Syrto” is sure-footed after Goats presents Xylouris White spending a couple of songs getting a feel for one another. Syrtos are traditional Greek dances that people bust out at parties and weddings but “Psarandonis Syrto” has a somber, contemplative tone. On “Pulling the Bricks”, each musical flourish is a gambit and a dare, Xylouris leaning into his lute for a stretch of fast tremolo picking, while White, supportive yet minimal, provides an up tempo pattern on a ride cymbal.

It’s one of many instances on this record where pieces sound festive but brooding. “Old School Sousta” seems to be a sly piss-take at the Crete folk traditionalism that Xylouris employs in his busy, insistent lute lick and that White bolsters, mostly rolling tom drum thuds before the song climaxes with an off-kilter martial snare, signifying a parade happily running its course. 

Xylouris and White are both capable of starting storms. When, in their respective work, they strike upon a moment where they wish to explode, the jolt can be a remarkable feat of musical strength. Knowing this lends an eerie suspense to things like “Wind”, which features some dense and dynamic interaction between the players but the builds are subtle. As the piece rumbles forth, there are many instances where it feels like something huge is about to happen but the song teases and dissipates. 

The pensive joy within Goats stems from two musicians of seemingly disparate backgrounds, communicating together with the tools they know best and as well as anyone else who has ever used them. Here though, with new partners and parameters, they’ve struck upon something challenging, wholly inventive, and rewarding. 

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Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London

“Give my love to London,” Marianne Faithfull sings on the title track to her latest album. At first it sounds like a friendly request, but it soon becomes a threat: “The river’s runny bloody, the towers tumbling down,” she sings, not exactly horrified by the tableau. “I’m singing ‘Pirate Jenny’ as the blackship’s bearing down.” It’s a sly reference. The second most popular number form Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (the first being “Mack the Knife”), “Pirate Jenny” is a stout song about bloody wish fulfillment: A bitter and beleaguered hotel maid imagines a marauding pirate ship destroying the city and murdering all the people who treated her so cruelly, ending with Jenny escaping with the swashbucklers and scallywags.

Faithfull famously performed the tune in the mid 1990s during a Threepenny revival in Dublin, and her fascination with Weimar-era musical theater inspired her 1997 album 20th Century Blues, which includes her best version of the song. On “Give My Love to London”, Faithfull reimagines herself as Pirate Jenny returning to the scene of her greatest triumph and surveying a London still in ruins. Although the final verse resituates the song, it’s not hard to imagine Faithfull as the conquering anti-hero, especially considering how she was run out of the city in the late ‘60s for the same behavior that earned her male peers—including and especially Mick Jagger—their lucrative reputations as bad boys.

And yet, there is some affection in “Give My Love to London,” which was co-written with Steve Earle, now a Londoner himself. Faithfull navigates the bouncy melody gracefully and generously, evoking the easy bonhomie of old friends who have long put any ill will behind them. The song announces an album that will confront the past, her own and our own, as though trying to sever it from the present. This is not necessarily a memoir set to music, mainly because these songs find Faithfull playing roles other than herself. As a result, it’s her best and most daring album of this century, featuring some of her heaviest and most haunting performances.

Faithfull has spent most of the time since 20th Century Blues fashioning herself into rock’s grand dame, an avatar of European decadence redeemed into something like old-world authority. Working with Britpop survivors (Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker) as well as American alt-rockers (Beck, Billy Corgan), she’s made a handful of fine albums that persistently reinforce her reputation as a formidable interpreter of others’ songs, as if anyone still though otherwise. Before the Poison and Easy Come Easy Go may have put her in touch with a younger generation of artists who considered her both a hero and an influence, but Give My Love to London is something else entirely. Working with Roger Waters, Nick Cave, Anna Calvi, and a band that features Ed Harcourt, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and members of the Bad Seeds, she has created an album that bristles with danger and even roils with anger.

But it also has moments of disarming humor. Toward the end of Give My Love to London, she gingerly covers Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home”, a late-career rumination on the nature of creativity. It’s a monologue delivered by a muse who considers Cohen “a lazy bastard living in a suit”—in other words, a tool no different than a pen or quill. Faithfull does not replace his name with hers; instead, she plays the muse herself, claiming his triumphs as her own. It becomes a melancholic hymn to age and experience, but more wittily, it’s a funny and fitting turnabout for a songwriter who has repeatedly exploited his female subjects for his own spiritual gain (see, for example, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”).

Faithfull has always conveyed a sensual gravity with that gravelly voice of hers, but the melancholy on Give My Love to London is tinged with angst and disaffection—perhaps inspired by her recent bout with cancer, or the back injury that left her bedridden, or just by a sense of alienation from a world that makes less and less sense by the day. For most artists of her generation, such topicality can sound either haughty (Neil Young’s recent orchestral protest song, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up”) or simply cloistered from the rest of the world (David Crosby’s latest album). But the theatricality of Faithfull’s performances lend weight to a song like “True Lies”, with its pendulum guitar riff and accusing lyrics: “True lies from your twisted little mind!” she glowers, her outrage absolutely withering.  

“Mother Wolf”, which Faithfull co-wrote with Patrick Leonard, may be her finest moment on Give My Love to London. It consists primarily of a single verse and chorus, each repeated throughout the song, but Faithfull sings each iteration with new dramatic emphasis. On the first time through, she delivers the allegorical lyrics almost passively, as though looking down on humanity from some high cloud. The next time, she has descended to earth and become a human amid the earthly horror of war. Faithfull doesn’t sing so much as she spits the words, her delivery grinding against the song’s meter. “How you disgust me!” she growls, turning those syllables into something acrid and poisonous and fundamentally ugly. Her performance meets violence with more violence, and the song’s pummeling pace and dark catharsis simultaneously underscore and undermine the song. The pirates are attacking London, and Faithfull is leading them onward. 

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