The Daily Californian Online

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan Turn Trite at Great American

By Amelia Taylor-Hochberg
Contributing Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Music > Concerts

You know those housewares stores, nestled in the downtown areas of affluent suburbia, that sell a simpler time? This doesn't refer to our friendly Trader Joe's brand of affordable lager, but a certain nostalgia - tin lunchboxes and old-fashioned toys and hand-woven potpourri baskets (bourgeois and rustic). But despite the tiffany lampshades and absence of USB ports, these products are in no way authentic recollections of another time. They are overwrought affects of imitation, pushing the consumer button of nostalgia. Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, formerly of (respectively) Belle & Sebastian and Screaming Trees, are pushing the same type of button. Their performance at the Great American Music Hall last Thursday was a sterile rendition of their well-constructed but formulaic new album, Hawk, executed in a prefabricated "beauty and the beast" duet persona akin to 1960s Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg.

Put more simply, what was so disappointing about their performance was a complete lack of innovation or improvisation. It never drifted from the middle of the road to stare at a car wreck nor generate a euphoric concert experience, and that makes it all the less interesting to talk about: It was boring. The performance never broke the surface of the album's studio-produced quality, never deviating perceptibly from the album's cadence and orchestration. Especially with the continued devaluing of physical music media sales, a live performance is an opportunity space to emphasize and exploit the music's latent abilities in a live context. The ticket price was equivalent to the retail price of a new CD, and you get what you pay for: an animatronic Isobel and Mark mouthing along to their album's soundtrack. Standing about eight feet apart from each other on the stage, staring straight ahead and almost never interacting directly with each other, they reinforced the sterility of the recording studio, even without the sound booth. Their independent musical registers formed two separate hemispheres, but their performance never breached the equator. It felt like I was being let in on the dry run of a mediocre high school play, the performers running through their lines and blocking with a glassy-eyed indifference to an imagined audience.

What made the expressionless performance even more frustrating is the duo's purported homage to the turgid, smoky emotionality of the heterosexual duet. It may be a bit too much to ask that the music's referenced genre be congruent with the relationship between the singers - being another Rosanne and Johnny Cash isn't a prerequisite to putting out an album of similar tonality. But when your MySpace profile is likening your music to that of the aforementioned Jane and Serge, or the Johnny Cash American recordings, or Nancy Sinatra's Lee Hazlewood productions, you place yourself within a pretty lofty context. And singing into an old-timey microphone is not enough to recreate these relationships in song.

Exiting the theater that night, I left behind the warmth and low lighting of the Great American to the slick asphalt and indifferent traffic of O'Farrell. The yellow glow of the Great American's marquee fading behind me as I biked past a luminous strip club advertising "Wild Girls," their bodies painted to resemble jungle cats, I realized how immediately the ambience of the performance had dissolved in my memory. Being rained on in front of a strip club was more stimulating than Isobel and Mark's performance, and probably a lot closer to something Serge would have done.

Article Link: