Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral (4AD)

Admittedly it’s early in the year, but Mark Lanegan has already set the bar pretty high. His first solo album since 2004’s Bubblegum looks to be one of the musical highlights of 2012. In between Bubblegum and Blues Funeral Lanegan has kept himself busy working with Greg Dulli as The Gutter Twins, duetting with Isobel Campbell and contributing to albums by Queens Of The Stone Age, The Twilight Singers, UNKLE and Soulsavers. But Blues Funeral should eclipse anything Lanegan has done previously, including his stint fronting Screaming Trees.

Credited to the Mark Lanegan Band, Blues Funeral sounds primarily like a solo project. Lanegan has written all of the songs and handles all the lead vocals. Former QOTSA/Them Crooked Vultures member Alain Johannes is the producer and provides most of the music, playing guitar, bass, keys and percussion. Ex-Chili Pepper/Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons hold down the beat. Irons and Johannes previously worked together in the band Eleven. Guest appearances include contributions from Greg Dulli, Josh Homme, Masters Of Reality’s Chris Goss and Porno For Pyros bassist Martyn Lenoble. But for all intents and purposes this is Mark Lanegan’s vision, and what a vision it is…dark, unsettling, at times redemptive, at times chilling. While Lanegan certainly has an original voice, both lyrically and vocally, he could stake a claim as America’s answer to Nick Cave. And I mean that in the most complementary way.

The album kicks off with the galloping electro-beat of The Gravedigger’s Song. Lanegan’s low gravelly voice has never sounded better as he intones, “With piranha teeth, I’ve been dreaming of you…”. Quite a sweet-talker that one. Johannes and Irons lay down a furious musical bed that sounds like a weather bomb going off behind Lanegan.

Bleeding Muddy Water is slower and bluesier. There are more evocative lyrics from Lanegan…”Muddy water rising up, you know I feel you in my iron lung”. When he sings, “Oh baby don’t it feels so bad”, it sounds so good. This one sounds very much like the title suggests, a Blues Funeral. My only complaint is that at just over six minutes, the track goes on just a little too long.

Gray Goes Black is a mid-tempo rocker featuring the jangly guitar of David Rosser, who has worked with Lanegan in The Twilight Singers. He turns in a nice, echo-laden solo and Mark comes up with more fine lyrics…”please don’t turn off my radio, not with the rope still swinging”. Lanegan’s raspy vocal pokes out of the mix just when you need to hear him.

St. Louis Elegy slows things down again and features a metronome-like beat. As the track progresses, the music swells, sounding a bit like Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run on downers. Greg Dulli chimes in on backing vocals and Lanegan closes the song out singing, “These tears are liquor and I’ve drunk myself sick”.

Josh Homme shows up to wail away on his guitar during Riot In My House. And that’s just what it sounds like. Lanegan’s voice conjures up memories of Captain Beefheart and Tom Waits. The track rocks relentlessly making a glorious big noise.

Ode To Sad Disco was inspired by music from Danish filmmaker Nicolas Refn, the director of Drive. It does indeed feature an electronic disco beat. Mark croons part of the lyric in a smoother, higher voice than usual, then slips back into his Howlin’ Wolf growl. David Rosser returns to add some cool, twangy guitar.

Lanegan offers up his :”torn and tattered love” on Phantasmagoria Blues, another slow, brooding number in which Mark laments, “thought I’d rule like Charlemagne, but I’ve become corrupt”. Martyn Lenoble contributes a tasty bass run at the end of this one.

Quiver Syndrome is a shrill, harsh rocker and Lanegan’s voice crackles to be heard over the din. Long-time backing vocalist Shelley Brien gets in some catchy “doo-doos” over the wall of guitars Johannes has built up.

Mark Lanegan’s battles with various substances are well-known and Harborview Hospital finds him returning to the place where he faced down those demons. It’s anthemic and triumphant, perhaps a darker, more interesting version of U2. Lenoble is back on bass, laying down a groove over the skittering drum beat and Lanegan revisits his old stomping ground…”all around this place I was a sad disgrace”.

Leviathan is an unsettling, neo-psychedelic blues workout featuring Chris Goss. What sounds like a mournful cello saws away throughout the track as Lanegan sings about skeletons hiding in the trees and the hours crawling by like a spider. Just when you think it’s over, the track kicks in to a coda featuring Lanegan and Goss trading vocal lines.

A snippet of backward vocal at the top gives Deep Black Vanishing Train a dark edge right from the get-go. Eagles Of Death Metal guitarist David Catching plays acoustic guitar as Mark looks to have found a light at the end of his dark tunnel…”I have finally freed myself, but it’s hard to break away”.

The album wraps up with Tiny Grain Of Truth. The keening synth lines of Belgian musician Aldo Struyf set the mood along with Irons’ pulsating, hypnotic drum beat. “What’s done is done”, Lanegan sings with an air of finality. He’s ready to, “roll out to a blues funeral”. The track rolls on for seven glorious minutes and ends the album majestically.

Mark Lanegan and his band have put together a beautifully conceived collection of songs that feel like they belong together. This is not a concept album, but there is a story in there. Lanegan tells it well. I can’t wait to hear these songs live when he plays in Auckland in April. I won’t mind if he only played song from Blues Funeral. It’s that good.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to Gray Goes Black from Blues Funeral