Any time interesting male and female singers team up, the comparisons are obvious and tempting: Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra, Johnny Cash & June Carter, George Jones & Tammy Wynette, and so on. Yet the differences between those famous duos and the pairing of Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan are more telling than the similarities.
For starters, Sunday At Devil Dirt, their second collaboration following 2006’s Ballad Of The Broken Seas, keeps the balance of power tipped toward the woman. As on Broken Seas, Campbell wrote almost all the songs, played instruments ranging from cello to glockenspiel, co-arranged the brass and strings, and produced the entire album; Lanegan just sings, although the rugged nicotine intensity of his voice is no small contribution.
Campbell doesn’t try to match Lanegan’s vocal power – she probably couldn’t. Instead, she is content to lay her wispy voice on his shoulder like a wraith or a cautious conscience. This effect is not unlike how Alison Krauss occasionally held back for Robert Plant on Raising Sand, but Lanegan projects far more menace than Plant; you can practically hear him squint beneath his furrowed brow.
With the spaciously intimate blues of “Back Burner”, the waltz-time folk of “Keep Me In Mind, Sweetheart”, and the softly lush and dark classical pop of “Who Built The Road”, Campbell provides Lanegan much to squint at and ruminate over. He seems to take little comfort in what she gives him, but he does show tenderness (of the gruff variety) and a sliver of hope in “Something To Believe”.
He also reciprocates with gravitas, which deepens the impact of songs that do no more than renovate, albeit gorgeously, old forms and styles. Sunday At Devil Dirt doesn’t till any new ground, but it strides the old ground with considerable authority – a quality that Campbell & Lanegan do share with those more famous duos.