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Bubble and Scrape

 

Mark Lanegan Band: Bubblegum

Beggars Banquet, 2004

Rating: 4.5

 

 

Posted: August 24, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau

When Mark Lanegan began releasing solo albums in the early '90s, he was still fronting the Seattle-based Screaming Trees, an outlet that, no doubt, more than satisfied his appetite for hard rock. So his solo oeuvre, beginning with the excellent tandem of The Winding Sheet and the exemplary Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, served as a vehicle for exploring terrain that was at once rootsier and murkier: darkly elegant, steeped in a swampy miasma of traditional acoustic and blues influences that proved just as fitting for his honeyed barbed-wire rasp as did sweaty rock 'n' roll.

Given that Lanegan's solo records continued in that vein throughout the '90s (and up to 2001's Field Songs), and indeed became his main musical vessel after the dissolution of Screaming Trees, it's tempting to frame Bubblegum as a reconciliation of two extremes. After all, it does traverse rocky terrain similar to his short-lived association with Queens of the Stone Age, even as it showcases the same gift for grim, dusky balladry as his solo efforts. But that description is an oversimplification. Bubblegum is more than an a + b equation (in this case, rootsy solo style + muscular rock). Rather, it's a distillation of the singer's subtly different moods and modes, a cohesive and comprehensive work that stands as the most representative look yet at his musical persona.

To the extent that Bubblegum incorporates harder-rocking sounds, it doesn't rock with the brawny thrash-and-burn of Screaming Trees at their hardest; the album hews closer to the simmering fuzz-rock intensity of Queens' of the Stone Ages' Songs for the Deaf, most especially on "Driving Death Valley Blues" and the charging "Sideways in Reverse." "Hit the City" is propelled by a buzzing bass line that threatens to break apart into static; "Methamphetamine Blues" (also heard on last year's Here Comes That Weird Chill EP) clangs with a junkyard-furnace percussion straight out of Tom Waits' bag of tricks, augmented by thrumming guitar that occasionally peels off into muted squeals that suggest the distant howling of unseen predators.

This rock approach, more coiled menace than balls-out primal scream therapy, fits nicely with the album's dimly spectral ballads and slower numbers, which nod to Lanegan's previous solo efforts while nudging them into the serrated territory first hinted at on Weird Chill. The spare "One Hundred Days" perfectly utilizes the oft-overlooked emotional power of Lanegan's bourbon-and-smoke delivery, while "Morning Glory Wine" wouldn't sound out of place on the Trees' masterful swan song Dusk. This musical terrain both suits and balances Lanegan's dark lyricism, which, at times, teeters right at the edge of self-parody. ("Will you be shamed if I shake like I'm dyin' / When I fall to my knees and I'm cryin' / Will you visit me where my body rests / Will you put on that long white dress?" he sings on "Wedding Dress.")

Throughout, Lanegan is well served by a rotating cast of musicians (billed as the Mark Lanegan Band, a signal perhaps of the singer's desire to shake up his M.O.) including Polly Jean Harvey; QOTSA's Josh Homme and Nick Oliveri; original Guns N' Roses members Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan; and Twilight Singers' Greg Dulli, among others. But it's the singer's hardscrabble voice, poetics and vision that rank Bubblegum as among his best efforts (solo or otherwise), a record that heralds a promising and well-received new chapter in the artist's impressive canon.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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