My discovery of Isobel Campbell came in late 2004, when I first listened to Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian‘s acclaimed 1998 album “The Boy with the Arab Strap”. The record immediately left an impact – Campbell’s keyboard riffs on the track “It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career” especially caught my attention.

However, it was not until I got hold of her solo records that I noticed her songwriting talents that, coupled with the strange appeal of her distinctly feminine voice – soft, fragile, whispery though never sensual – immediately got me hooked.

And so when word came in 2006 that she was due to collaborate with Mark Lanegan (of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age) I was quite enthused by the prospect of listening to what the two could come up with. They after all, could not be more different on the surface. Lanegan is a Seattle icon who has outlived his more illustrious peers (Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley come to mind) though never shedding the mystic so synonymous with the grunge scene of the early 90s – glowering and tortured are two adjectives commonly used to describe the Lanegan’s baritone voice. Campbell on the other hand, has been depicted by one journalist as having an “unnaturally sunny disposition: girlish and giggly”. As the Independent put it, Isobel Campbell is as bright as Lanegan is dark.

But their 2006 album “Ballad of the Broken Seas (BOTBS)” put to rest any concerns that they were just too far apart in personality and musical backgrounds to produce anything more than an awkward, stitched up record. As it turned out, Campbell and Lanegan exploited the contrasts between them to great effect – taking the listener on a journey he does not know of until the end of the final track.

The opening track Deus Ibi Est (a line from a hymn) appeared to stick to the script. Lanegan leads with trademark assertiveness “Bound unto a future shaped by ancestors before me/Day on day I march the beat to someone else’s drum” and Campbell, with limited lines “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” (Where there are love and charity, there God is) seems to play the role of willing second fiddle – exuding in her voice the calming and supportive influence of a loyal woman over a fuming man. There is an unmistakable play on the conventional male/female – dominance/submission dichotomy; whether or not it was intended is uncertain, but the track grips precisely because of those power undertones.

Promising as the start is, the critic at this point would be concerned that the entire record could turn out to be too much of a Lanegan-dominated effort. Right on cue though, the second track “Black Mountain” consists of only Campbell, with her singing markedly dark lyrics never before heard from her (“I met a man whom I’ll never doubt/Flew into the sun, our bodies on fire/Betrothed to a mate, pray it is not so/Invoke father time, then he let her go”). Accompanied by a haunting melody, it was as if Black Mountain was the triumphant female reply to the seemingly all-conquering macho-element of Lanegan so apparent in Deus Ibi Est.

The asymmetry in the first two tracks is progressively replaced with more conventional duets- by the time their remake of Hank Williams’s classic “Ramblin’ Man” comes around, the ‘mesmeric tension’ is long gone – even Lanegan’s growl is down a few notches. As the album rolls along, the folksy feel to BOTBS increasingly comes to the fore with minimalist music almost fit for a singalong – quite a rarity for anything with Mark Lanegan in it! Far from being unappealing, these tracks seem to reflect a secure reconciliation of two opposites.

And ultimately, that is exactly what Ballad of the Broken Seas achieves. Opening with dark tension, it finally settles with a cosy closure – culminating in a circumspective Lanegan singing on the final track “The Circus is Leaving Town” which Campbell exclusively penned.

BOTBS remains one of my favourite album experiences. Four stars. Thank God they released a second record just earlier this year, which I may review it some other time.