So your former band, in your absence, releases one of the best albums of the year and arguably their best to date. What’s a girl to do? Team up with former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan? It could work, I’m game so far. After all, some of the best collaborations come from the most unlikely pairings. One album in one year still isn’t enough, you say? Then why not go completely solo and release another one? There’s certainly nothing wrong with proliferation, so long as the quality doesn’t suffer, which is a line more often crossed than carefully tread. Which brings me to the focus (finally) of this review, Isobel Campbell’s second album of the year, the Lanegan-less Milkwhite Sheets.
In a rather obvious attempt to distance herself from former mates Belle & Sebastian, Campbell has assembled a collection of songs in the vein of folk artists of recent memory (Vetiver, Devendra Banhart, etc.). The stripped down approach isn’t profoundly original in its conception, but when it works right, does it ever (take Beck’s gloriously somber Sea Change for example). Unfortunately for Campbell, an attempt to diversify and latch on the latest neo-folk movement proves to be too much of a stretch for her talent to compensate for.
The pretty fingerpicking and gently caressing harmonies of (the unfortunately titled) “Are You Going To Leave Me” finds Campbell at her most vulnerable. An experiment in a cappella with “Loving Hannah,” while showcasing Campbell’s delicate voice, is hardly worth repeat listens and seems interminable at just over three minutes. While some tracks, like the instrumentals “James,” “Over The Wheat and The Barley,” and the title track exhibit original folk sensibility, they fail to balance out the remainder of the album.
Milkwhite Sheets is not a far cry from Ballad of The Broken Seas (her first release of the year), but far more sparse. Campbell’s lilting soprano suffers without the sharp contrast of Lanegan’s gruff presence. She should be credited for stepping out on a limb here, instead of following the age-old adage of “write what you know” and instead opting to do quite the opposite and writing what she doesn’t know. However, diversity for the sake of diversity does not a good album make. Perhaps Campbell should stick to collaborations with ’90s rockers on subsequent releases. What’s Chris Cornell doing these days anyway? (ed: Audioslave, remember? Ugh.)