9 Feb 2020

Breaking Free: Isobel Campbell and Brittany Howard

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 9 February 2020

William Dart reviews new releases from two singer-songwriters now going solo: the Scottish Isobel Campbell (ex Belle and Sebastian) and the American Brittany Howard (ex Alabama Shakes).

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Brittany Howard

Brittany Howard Photo: Supplied - Sony

The year is 1993, and we’re on the dancefloor of our dreams, or perhaps of our nightmares. A clutch of hyper-hip producers, including three from Five Boys Productions, are cooking up disco delirium around the Scottish singer Lulu.

But today we’re not so concerned with shaking booties, but more with the message of the song. 

In careers, as well as in love, independence is something to be savoured and, if necessary, fought for.

Today I’ll be looking at two woman songwriters who have broken free of their group affiliations and asserted themselves as solo artists.

First up is another Scottish singer, Isobel Campbell, who projected a rather waifish presence singing with her hometown band Belle and Sebastian.

Here we’re talking 1998 vintage for the song 'The Gate'.

The music may have livened up within that song, but the first minute or so is possibly one of the reasons that I haven’t  always succumbed to the dewy-eyed earnestness of Belle and Sebastian. And Isobel Campbell’s first solo projects pursued similar paths, recorded under the name of The Gentle Waves.

Yet, with committed listening, there are revelations to be found, even if they’re rather low-key. While the understated sound might not be to all tastes, there’s something beguiling about the way in which Campbell gathers together a whole range of instruments to create a sometimes awkward mix.

Out of that mix comes her almost whispered vocals, singing for her fellow women in songs like 'Loretta Young', 'Sisterwoman' and 'There was Magic, Then...'.

Between 2006 and 2010 Isobel Campbell entered into an unexpected partnership with Mark Lanegan, the lead singer of the American grunge band, Screaming Trees – a pairing that was startling at the time. Yet, there was a certain compatibility here, with Campbell carefully taking Lanegan into mind when writing her songs.

It was a resilient partnership too. At one point she was happy to tour with Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines when Lanegan was in rehab.

I was a little playful 12 years ago when I used their second album, Sunday at Devil Dirt on New Horizons, suggesting that if Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood were alive, well, and working in Scotland, Campbell and Lanegan might have been them.

Many of the couple’s songs do look back and not only to the folksong models that fuel Campbell’s own numbers, but also to the era of 50s and 60s soul.

In a number like 'Come on Over' with its boxy studio recording, one can’t help but hear the makings of a sultry Dusty Springfield ballad.

Since Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan signed off their partnership in 2013, Campbell has found herself in some strange musical situations, which in one case looked backwards rather than forwards.  In 2014, she made a guest appearance with French musician Arno Sofo, singing on one track of an album titled The Snakes you Charm and the Wolves you Tame by his band Sweet Gum Tree.

The song in question, 'Bird of Passage', almost bewilderingly pretty, is hampered by crude production that doesn’t always do justice to the music’s lush ambitions.

Two appearances in 2015 found Isobel Campbell singing the music of others. Joining a roster of artists ranging from American veteran Emmitt Rhodes and Canadian alt-vocalist, Mary Margaret O’Hara, to less familiar bands such as The Boy Joys and the Silver Seas, she offered her own swirly tribute to the Brothers Gibb – a cover of the Bee Gee’s 'How Deep Is Your Love' that benefits, possibly, from a touch of Campbell’s Scottish astringency.

In the same year she met up again with Scottish jazz man Bill Wells, who had partnered her in a Billie Holiday project in the previous decade.

This time around, on an album titled Nursery Rhymes, she was one of a number of guest artists, including Bridget St John, Annette Peacock and Yo Lo Tengo. All singing … nursery rhymes.

Campbell makes two appearances: one sharing 'Polly put the kettle on' with Mose Allison’s daughter Amy; the other a short but rather sweetly askew 'Rocky a Bye Baby', all by herself.

Isobel Campbell’s new solo album, There is No Other, is now upon us and it's an unexpected departure from anything that I’ve heard from her to date.

Perhaps it’s to do with living in LA and feeling at home in holistic spaces. But the album’s single, 'Hey World', encapsulates the release’s problem – there may be happiness and contentment all around, but the payoff is a certain blandness, locked into this song’s two chord strum.

While sympathizing with a 43-year-old worried that she doesn’t have enough of a profile after a 24-year career, both the song and its video seem irretrievably locked in images of childhood innocence. That is until the backing vocalists rise up in its final minute, and, on video, the animated flowers with them.

Back in 2012, David Letterman’s television hour was a valued gateway into the up-and-coming bands and artists to watch out for.

And when Alabama Shakes debuted on it in April of that year, it was a four-minute conversion to fandom.

Their contribution, 'Hold On' would end up being Rolling Stone’s best song of that year, and it has nothing to do with similarly-titled numbers by Sam & Dave or Wilson Phillips. It’s simply the powerhouse lead singer and guitarist, Brittany Howard, telling it like it is, having survived to the grand old age of 22.

Alabama Shakes made its debut in 2012 and its sophomore album, Sound & Colour, which came out three years later, would be their last to date.

It was another impressive and much lauded release. Apart from the quality of the songwriting, there was so much to enjoy in the sheer sonics that clothed it. Little surprise that producer Blake Mills and engineer Shawn Everett talked at some length online, divulging a few secrets along the way. One of which being the crucial balancing of the song 'This Feeling', with its central acoustic guitar.

Taking time off from her work with Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard came up with her solo debut late last year, an album titled Jaime.

It hasn’t been a totally clean break — the band’s bass man Zac Cockrell is on many of the tracks and, sitting in the producer’s chair herself, engineer Shawn Everett is at her side.

Understandably, Jaime is a more searching personal album than Howard’s work with Alabama Shakes. It takes its title from a sister who died of a rare eye cancer when Howard was 8 and, song by song, we see her reviewing her own life on the brink of turning 30.

A life in which faith is not forgotten or questioned. Two tracks in, the song 'He Loves Me' paints a complex soundscape with interpolations from Pastor Terry K Andersen of Houston’s Lily Grove Missionary Baptist Church, inspiring perhaps some fiery licks from Howard’s guitar.

Complex songs like 'Tomorrow', cast into three distinct sections in as many minutes, share the disc with the clangorous percussion of 'Thirteenth Century Metal' and the restless 'Goat Head', which remembers the racial discriminations suffered by her father.

Yet there is also this gentle reminiscence of a schoolgirl crush.

While Brittany Howard’s album doesn’t sidestep the confrontational, there are some lovely moments of reflection with songs that show, in the moulding of voice around music, a rare artistry.

One being the utterly frank love ballad, 'Presence', even if one wishes that Lavinia Meijer’s harp didn’t have to compete with Howard’s overly assertive guitar and drum contributions in the studio version on the album.

The live version online allows you to be more smoothly taken to the Heaven that I think Howard intends.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Independence' (Sela, Ware) – Lulu

'The Gate' (Belle & Sebastian) – Belle & Sebastian
This Is Just A Modern Rock Song

'There Was Magic, Then...' (Campbell) – The Gentle Waves
Swansong For You

'Come On Over (Turn Me On)' (Campbell) – Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan
Sunday At Devil Dirt

'Bird of Passage' (Sojo, Voegelin) – Sweet Gum Tree feat. Isobel Campbell
The Snakes You Charm & the Wolves You Tame
(Dreamy Bird)

'How Deep Is Your Love' (Gibb' (Isobel Campbell
Tribute: To Love the Bee Gees
(80 Proof Media)

'Rock a Bye Baby' (Trad) – Bill Wells feat. Isobel Campbell
Nursery Rhymes
(Karaoke Kalk)

'Hey World' (Campbell) – Isobel Campbell
There is No Other
(Cooking Vinyl)

'Hold On' (Alabama Shakes) – Alabama Shakes
Boys and Girls

'This Feeling' (Alabama Shakes) – Alabama Shakes
Sound & Colour

'He Loves Me' (Howard) – Brittany Howard

'Georgia' (Howard) – Brittany Howard

'Presence' (Howard) – Brittany Howard

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