Music Reviews
Blues Funeral

Mark Lanegan Band Blues Funeral

(4AD) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

In the eyes (and ears) of certain sections of the music press, age counts for a lot. Last year’s album from Tom Waits, Bad As Me, was critically lauded far and wide (including on this website). And rightly so – although it didn’t exactly break new ground in Waits’ oeuvre, it was of sufficiently high quality as to ensconce itself in the higher echelons of his body of work. Much of its review coverage came from the ‘return to form’ angle, and highlighted Waits’ longevity, as if this somehow imbued the album with an untouchable quality – grizzly songwriter as national treasure. Similarly this year’s Old Ideas by Leonard Cohen has also been hailed by some as a masterpiece; although how this has happened is unfathomable, as the songs are little more than polite and innocuous blues workouts, to accompany Len’s lugubrious musings on his impending mortality. To trash the album is like bashing an old man over the head and running off with his walking stick. Cohen’s old age has saved him and his album from the critical mugging that it probably deserves.

Ex-Screaming Trees front man Mark Lanegan is alt.rock royalty. Now at the tail end of his forties he has spent the last eight years since his last solo album, 2004’s Bubblegum, in collaboration with various musicians across the indie rock spectrum, from former Belle and Sebastian singer Isobel Campbell, to Greg Dulli, to (most improbably) British Electronica act Soulsavers. There are hints of influence from these various collaborators, but the overarching feel of this new album is of a blues survivor, a gnarled and world-weary gutter poet soaked in whiskey and cigarette smoke. He certainly looks the part, like a cross between Christian Bale and Nick Nolte, and the guttural quality of his voice makes it as distinctive an instrument as that of the aforementioned Waits, or even Kurt Cobain. The latter comparison is an interesting one. On 20thFebruary 2012 Cobain would have been 45 years old. It’s a pointless but compelling idea that his gravelly, emotional vocal style might have matured into the kind of deep blues growl now heard on Lanegan’s records.

Blues Funeral explodes with the powerful The Gravedigger’s Song, a track that recalls Lanegan’s best work with Queens of the Stone Age. With its muscular riffage and pounding drums married to a keen understanding of the power of melody, it’s one of the album’s best songs. Unfortunately it is followed by the somewhat swollen six minutes of Bleeding Muddy Water, the first of a number of songs that outstay their welcome. St Louis Elegy (a reference to St Louis Blues perhaps, a blues standard recorded by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, among others) offers a few blues clichés, with its lyrics of drinking liquor until you’re sick, although its Morricone-isms are a welcome diversion. Ode To Sad Disco is the most out-there track, the best example of the place electronics has on this album, melding a Depeche Mode like beat to atmospheric guitar, while Harborview Hospital has echoes of Joshua Tree era U2, and even New Order. The album is at its most successful when Lanegan allows these alien textures to take a more prominent role in his songs, providing a counterfoil to his gravelly rock vocals. Elsewhere the songs meander too much for the album to coalesce into a convincing statement. As powerful a tool as his voice is, you can’t escape the feeling that he’s holding something back. Maybe not in his delivery, but more in the sense that a more questing and adventurous musical spirit would have made the album compelling, rather than merely diverting.