Isobel Campbell in Leeds
Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Tuesday 28th January 2020, £15.00
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After a prolonged absence and major changes in her life, Isobel Campbell returns with her freest, finest album yet in There Is No Other, released 31st January 2020 via Cooking Vinyl. Thirteen tracks of hook-driven melody across a wide spectrum of subtle, alluring arrangements and moods, from intense to mysterious to carefree, topped by her trademark gorgeous soft-spun voice. Campbell has shared a video for the LP's lead track Ant Life directed by Mike Aho (Bonnie Prince Billy, Grandaddy, Royal Trux), which can be viewed HERE, and announced a run of UK and European live shows to support the release. Dates/info below:
One word I had in mind for this record was 'psychedelic', Campbell says. A dreamy, otherworldly feel. Take the lead single, 'Ant Life'; shimmering folk-pop with woozy synths over a metronomic pulse with decorative handclaps. Or the forthcoming second single 'Hey World', a silken southern-soul odyssey that builds to a soaring, gospely climax. Subconsciously or otherwise, each song acknowledges the different paths that Campbell has travelled down the years: the twists and turns, various guises and collaborations. There Is No Other is also a very grown-up record; a life has been lived. She's not a 19-year old ingénue anymore.
That was Campbell's age when she first emerged, as a founder member of indie royalty Belle & Sebastian. Going solo in 1999, she called herself The Gentle Waves for two dream-folk albums before two more expansive records under her own name. But it's 14 years since her last solo album, and Campbell's much better known for the trio of albums (2006-2010) of brooding torchy Americana she made with America's favourite grizzly crooner Mark Lanegan a Beauty and the Beast scenario turned on its head since Beauty was calling the shots.
Campbell subsequently moved from Glasgow to Los Angeles, got married to studio engineer Chris Szczech and got down to making There Is No Other. But whilst she has fought fiercely to control her own destiny, she's met resistance from outside forces, most notably the label/legal complications that has held up the album for over three years.
A new label deal for Campbell in 2014 heralded a new beginning and the start of a brilliant adventure. The couple criss-crossed America several times, with their two dogs, recording in locations from an insurance office in Syracuse and a wooden cabin in the Catskills to more traditional Mant Studios in LA, mostly on their own but sometimes calling on a few pals: guitarist Jim McCulloch (Soup Dragons) and keyboardist Dave McGowan (Teenage Fanclub), plus Elijah Thomson (Father John Misty, Everest) and multi-instrumentalist Nina Violet (Willy Mason, Evan Dando, Marissa Nadler).
But when her record label suddenly closed; it took Campbell a year to take back the rights to her album, another year before she signed to UK indie Cooking Vinyl and a further year before all legalities were cleared and schedules organised. It felt like I'd retired, Campbell sighs. Or I was in prison. To be told I could not release the record completely broke me and I started questioning everything, feeling very reluctant and shying away from everything. But if you're lucky to live long enough, there are always going to be peaks and troughs.
But here's the album at last, taking the name There Is No Other from an ancient Mayan greeting that Campbell discovered while embracing the art of meditation - a mindful way to take away stress. Several tracks chime with the album title, such as 'Rainbow', a blend of dreamy bossa nova and crunchy electro-rhythms, to address respecting other people, the exquisitely sparse 'Just For Today' inspired by the five precepts of Japanese Reiki, and the swooning, country-soulful 'The Heart Of It All'. We're living in such divisive fear-mongering and intense times that it feels good to focus on healing and the underlying unity of all things, she says.
There Is No Other reverberates with other themes too, such as Campbell's new home in America, which inspired the album's bittersweet intro 'City Of Angels'. Los Angeles is such a weird and wonderful place, seductive yet overwhelming, she notes. Vibraphone and strings underline 'Boulevard', Campbell's reaction to LA's homeless crisis and rich/poor divide. 'Ant Life' finds her recoiling from the hectic pace of life in US cities, from its malls to the highways: All over, in fact, I'm exceedingly slow. My whole life, I've wondered, what's the rush?
Fortunately, America has been life-affirming too. Such as on the autumnal 'Counting Fireflies' and the album's sole cover version, Tom Petty's 'Runnin' Down A Dream', the signature guitar part replaced by a gently throbbing synth, the lyrics perfect for Campbell and Szczech's cross-country travels, Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads.
Finally, there's 'Below Zero', musically as tender as There Is No Other gets, but lyrically tough: Tired of all the bullshit / Playing nice / Shadow boxing / Skating on thin ice as Campbell shows her survival instinct, to not let the bad guys win. Running down a dream, and finding her true voice. There is No Other couldn't say it any better if she tried.
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