There Is No Other (Cooking Vinyl)
Isobel Campbell’s voice probably couldn’t shout in an avalanche. Certainly her singing voice at its most assertive would be struggling to be seen as anything more than softly softly. Mostly it’s hushed, whispering, murmuring, purring … you get the picture.
The assumption then for those who have not heard her previous albums might be that her records would be ever so quiet folkish tunes, with echoes of people like Sybil Baier or the gentlest part of French pop of the 1960s, played to an acoustic guitar and maybe a cello or two.
And certainly the final track of her new album, Below Zero, fits that bill, with its ruminative guitar figure, Campbell making a lullaby for adults about leaving warm climes for the cold quarters - with a little sting in its tail as the final verse tells us that “a man died in his car in Buffalo/Trapped, buried under six feet of snow” – and the strings arriving midway like they’ve just left a Nick Drake session.
However, Campbell – who first appeared as part of Belle & Sebastian in the mid ‘90s and has probably crossed more borders with her collaborations with the lugubrious Mark Lanegan – is more varied than this. Not just in sound but tone, prepared to darken appreciably and lighten joyfully, as the mood dictates.
The instrumentation around that voice isn’t as restrained: they don’t so much cushion her voice as surround it in a complementary atmosphere that allows it room to duck in and out like a child appearing and disappearing between tall tress and thick bushes. But it does in the main work a step back from prominence. Not out of sight, just not shouting either.
For example, while City Of Angels, a kind of mixed celebration of the Glaswegian’s newish home in Los Angeles, is a gentle introduction of intimate voice and slow guitar, its arrangement sends little forays of woodwind and strings as a reminder of something richer But there is no need for those interjections in the next track, Running Down A Dream, which lyrically is about possibilities even in the face of old world cynicism (“Trees went by/Me and Del were singing ‘little runaway’/I was flying”) because the synth pulse and tinny drum machine beat already feels like both a kick of the open road and an ‘80s film song waiting for its closeup.
Later, Rainbow offers some Astrud Gilberto-style easy bossa that can’t help but bring some (dappled) sunshine to the party, with vibraphone the final touch of sweet pleasure; The National Bird Of Indiaopens out with a positive spin on string ambience and Just For Today follows with a hazy summer atmosphere; Hey World is a counterculture pop moment that bursts its southern gospel barriers to soar (with the loudest vocals on the album, not by Campbell of course); and The Heart Of It Allluxuriates in a blend of country-tined gospel and open sky bent electric guitar strings.
Even when Ant Life returns to a mild pop/folk set up it is enlivened by amusing/spooky off-camera noises and a skipping under-tempo, Counting Fireflies projects some Lovin’ Spoonful energy in its mellow setting, and Vultures is a caress around a prickly subtext.
It creeps up on you this album, then it just keeps surprising. Who needs to shout? Not Isobel Campbell.