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Mark Lanegan - Blues Funeral

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Artist: Mark Lanegan

Album: Blues Funeral

Label: 4AD

Review date: Feb. 6, 2012

Mark Lanegan has always had one of rock’s most natural-sounding voices: rough-hewn, unaffected, deep and vibrant in an unstudied way, whispery and worn at the edges. His singing is couched in the world-weary acceptance of blues, but also reaches for spiritual resolution in the manner of gospel. He sounds, most of the time, as if he’s ruminating to himself, and when he hits the occasional soaring, outward-directed crescendo, it’s startling, as if a tiger in a zoo had suddenly turned its gaze on you. There is something elemental about Lanegan’s singing, something unconcerned with, and maybe hardly even aware of, the listener. It’s the reason that comparisons with Tom Waits, who is always calculating his effect on the audience, have never made sense to me. Two deep growly voices, one on a vaudeville stage, the other singing from the pit of an abandoned well, and not the slightest bit similar.

Blues Funeral is Lanegan’s seventh solo album, the first since 2004’s Bubblegum. In the interim, he’s been involved with a lot of different projects, from his stripped and blues-ridden collaborations with Isobel Campbell to the sprawling, psychedelic overdrive of Josh Homme’s Queens of the Stone Age and The Desert Sessions. He brings some of this home with him. There are some very unadulterated guitar blues excursions here (“Bleeding Bloody Water”) as well as some desert rock heat mirages (the massed vocals in “St. Louis Elegy”). Still, clearly the most surprising element in Lanegan’s work is his newfound fascination with synths, techno beats and gated reverb. Lanegan told MOJO that Cluster became a prime influence for Blues Funeral, but you can hear shades of Neu! and Kraftwerk, too. The combination works surprisingly well. Lanegan’s rendering of hell and redemption, life and death glows with vivid intensity against the mechanical pulse of drum and bass. His voice is the only bit of warmth and humanity, for instance, in chilly, luminous “Grey Goes Black.” He whispers a benediction over prodding, pulsing, beat-driven dystopias, a soul rushing towards horizon where grey does indeed turn to black.

Lanegan’s techno-blues aesthetic works especially well in “Ode to Sad Disco,” where the slush of cymbals, the popping thwack of snare, the viscous Human League-style synthesizer riff all recall the surgically clean production techniques of dance music in the 1980s. Yet, it’s here, in this sonically clean, well-lighted room, that Lanegan frames his most hallucinatory series of images, mountains of nails and dust, a drowned horse, a diamond-headed serpent, all leading up to spiritual catharsis. It is here, surrounded on all sides by a Studio 54 beat, that Lanegan utters “Gloria,” and sinks to his knees in prayer.

Blues Funeral has a couple of all out rockers (“Riot in My House”), some quieter blues-driven pieces that sound like his previous work (“Bleeding Bloody Water” and “Leviathan”). But what’s really compelling about this album is the way it mixes the elements — rock, blues, techno and spiritual release. “St. Louis Elegy” sets a spare and plaintive blues line against the febrile clatter of machine drums. Electro-shocked, fuzz-rocking “Quiver Syndrome,” threads bits of synthesizer though punk-rock scrabbled guitars, and culminates in the disc’s only direct appeal to Jesus.

Lanegan has swallowed new influences whole and spat them out in a music that is different from anything he’s done before … but also recognizably his. In the process, he’s made one of his strongest, and certainly his oddest, albums. I’d say that Blues Funeral is no more a funeral than it is, strictly speaking, blues. It’s more like a resurrection.

By Jennifer Kelly

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