Words by Russell Carstens
That voice — it could belong to a gravedigger, or a bearer of bad news. Actually, it’s just Mark Lanegan doing what he does best on his new album, Phantom Radio. Lanegan’s despair-induced howl is quite suitable for the chilly autumn and frigid winter, so Phantom Radio arrives just in time. Like his 2012 album Blues Funeral, it employs heavy use of programmed drums—but unlike on Blues Funeral, it’s stylistically diverse—touching on hip-hop, 1970s funk, and art-rock.
Taking advantage of technology’s nod to the heydays of programmed beats, Lanegan used the FunkBox app on his phone (which samples vintage drum machines) as the foundation for writing the album’s songs. The FunkBox website proudly states that it was also used by several other high-profile artists, including Gorillaz on The Fall.
Still haunted by the demons who’ve been burdening him since the ’80s, Lanegan moans, “Black is the color/ black is my name/ I need something to help me chase the devil away,” on the opener “Harvest Home.” The mournful crawl of “Judgment Time” will immediately catch the ears of deep-cut Lanegan fans, as it harkens back to the title track from his solo debut The Winding Sheet with a funeral-esque church organ. He cites the book of Revelation, singing, “I heard Gabriel’s trumpet,” over the strum of an acoustic guitar whose strings sound as worn and broken as the sad spirit he’s channeling.
When Lanegan moves out of his comfort zone, things get much more interesting. A surprisingly danceable beat drives “Floor of the Ocean,” lead by the ghostly hover of wine glasses ringing. On “The Killing Season,” a colorful blip-synth melody is heard—which, when listened to in context with the FunkBox drums—sounds like a more straightforward version of Boards of Canada’s sound. Just like BoC, it’s lovely and nostalgic. Fingerpicked acoustic guitars crawl skittishly over an ambient, drumless soundscape on “I Am The Wolf,” where he laments, “I hope the shelter is enough to keep me warm / I’ve been dying since the day I was born / That much I know is true.”
The album highlight “Torn Red Heart” has Lanegan realizing, “You don’t love me/ what’s to love anyway?” over a warm, embracing backdrop. It inspires the emotion one feels looking at the skyline of an unfamiliar city suffocated by oppressive nighttime smog.
Losing steam on the last three tracks, Phantom Radio comes to an end. Lanegan relies mostly on the atmosphere created by his always-weary voice and grim lyrics. Unfortunately, the melodies are pretty repetitive— no song truly sticks in your head. Even so, his diversity in genre and style on Phantom Radio make it a winner.
© October 21st, 2014
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