Before he explored a more eclectic and brash sound, Mark Lanegan was establishing himself as the ‘grunge’ generation’s Johnny Cash. Prior to a stint in Queens of the Stone Age, Lanegan had released a bunch of stellar albums that explored that rich tapestry of dusty Americana. Like Cash, his songs focussed on the darker side of town – dealing with substance abuse, facing demons, and hoping for, and sometimes getting, redemption. While there was darkness, there was a whole lot of wry humour. Then something done gone changed.
Here Comes That Weird Chill was an eclectic release full of sketches and scuzzy blues credited to Mark Lanegan Band. A precursor and companion piece to the full length Bubblegum that arrived shortly after. It took 8 years and a bunch of collaborations before he hit us with the expansive Blues Funeral; an all American gothic complete with dirges and beats. That stuff featured a host of guest and added something extra to an already weighty catalogue. Then within two years we were hit with Phantom Radio. A unique record that finds our man continuing to explore the new territory while embracing the pre-Mark Lanegan Band dust.
Side A gets off to a strong start; the jangly Harvest Home being one of the strongest tracks on Phantom Radio. However, despite coming on all early-Trees, it sounds a tad tinny and I can’t help but wish it was a bit heavier. Perhaps ripping from the speaker. Just like the rest of the electronic cuts here, it’s hard to really dig fully given that the sound was perfected on Blues Funeral. And you can never really avoid comparing the material. That said, it’s all a bit more hushed. Songs like Floor of the Ocean and The Killing Season having an ambience and subtlety that the Blues Funeral cuts don’t – the result of some synthesised strings and shimmers of light guitar (and even flute on Seventh Day).
Side B is something else, though. All the highlights are on there. Moving on from the splendiferous Duke Garwood co-write, I Am The Wolf, he throws out Torn Red Heart. A really incredible and sad love song that could have been pulled from Sinatra or Andy Williams’ songbook. His now smooth croon is perfect here and his delivery is really spot on when he sings “you don’t love me. What’s to love anyway?” Waltzing in Blue has a touch of Joy Division about it, too. There’s a mournful cold haze with a nice steady sinister bass lurking underneath it. Death Trip to Tulsa is brilliant and a great closer, but could have been the type to rattle bones. I can imagine that sucker if Lanegan had relocated to the desert.
I’ll admit to be being somewhat disappointed initially. However, it really has grown on me to the point of being one of my favourite albums last year. The gems are generally the pre-Lanegan Band sounding stuff and that’s been the problem. Listen to Judgement Time. His voice more brittle and you can hear the quiver. The Duke Garwood co-write I Am the Wolf isn’t dressed up either. His voice and the silence between lines creating a tension. Just the strength of the songs.
I want a whole album like that. The dustier hypnotic Americana.
I really love the artwork here. The same image is used on the remix album, but Gustavo Rimada’s art is particularly striking in red and gold. The whole thing is really nicely presented – really swell gatefold with lyrics (for those sing-a-long moments, amaright?) and the credits. The labels are really nice, too.