Friday, November 21, 2008

CD REVIEW: The Soulsavers' "It's Not How Far You Fall, It's the Way You Land"

Label: V2 Records

Mark Lanegan has participated in several musical projects over the years. He is remembered by most as the lead vocalist of the Screaming Trees, arguably the greatest early 90s grunge band that received no radio attention. In recent years, he has worked the Queens of the Stone Age and recorded an excellent duet record with former Belle and Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell. And, even though it has been completely ignored by mainstream radio, his phenomenal solo career speaks for itself. Solid album after solid album, Lanegan and his whiskey-and-cigarette vocals always seem to deliver.

Naturally, I was excited to hear that Lanegan was gracing us with his musical presence again. This time, he teams with British “electronic soul” band the Soulsavers, lending his quiet-yet-thunderous vocals to 8 of the 11 tracks on the group’s sophomore release, It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land. The results are wonderful. It’s the most eclectic project of which Lanegan has ever taken part. It also just might be the darkest. This is no party album. This record is all about death, loneliness, hopelessness, sin, and a little redemption. And the band made the perfect choice in recruiting Lanegan. His songwriting (Lanegan co-wrote five of the songs) and vocals are ideal for the mood the band wanted to create for the record. It’s a sonic marriage made in heaven… or perhaps in hell. And as one listens to It’s Not How Far You Fall, it’s apparent that’s just what the Soulsavers wanted.

It’s impossible to categorize the sound of this Soulsavers’ album. Stylistically, it’s all over the board. Sometimes, it’s old school gospel. Other times, it’s hip-hop. You get a little bit of rock and roll and a lot of soul. And it’s all set to an electronic background. Lanegan fans will find it closest in style to his most recent solo album, Bubblegum. But it’s much darker, and it works. Borrowing a term from Black Sabbath, perhaps the greatest way to describe this album’s sound is like an “electric funeral.” Powered by dark guitar and lots of piano and organ, It’s Not How Far You Fall is desolate from start to finish. Its characters are desperate, heartbroken, and hopeless… and death seems to loom around every corner.

The “fun” begins right away with the album’s most memorable track, “Revival.” On first listen, the song may seem like any other religious hymn… complete with choir-like female backing vocals and an organ playing in the background. Upon closer inspection, however, this is no song of religious celebration. It sounds like someone is dying, and by the time Lanegan begins the final verse solo, the desperation is obvious. The same death and loneliness surrounds the hip-hop oriented “Ghosts of You and Me.” It’s the closest Lanegan has ever come to rapping, and thanks to the Soulsavers’ excellent electronic support, it’s fantastic. Eat your heart out, Linkin Park. Madness overtakes on “Paper Money,” as its Devil-possessed individual stalks a woman he wishes to love. It’s dark lust at its best. And as the record progresses, its characters hopes seem to progress towards the grave. When Lanegan sings, “Jesus, I don’t want to die alone,” in an excellent version of the hymn “Spiritual,” thanks to his creakiest vocals and sparse instrumentation, it sounds like he’s already dead. The madness returns in “Jesus of Nothing,” which by the end, features three Lanegan vocal tracks playing at the same time as he talks of losing his mind now that his “trial is nearly over.” Great touch by the Soulsavers… it duplicates the feeling of insanity well! And finally, an older Lanegan poetic masterpiece about dying love (and perhaps, a dying lover), “Kingdom of Rain,” is revived for this album. It not only fits in perfectly on It’s Not How Far You Fall, but it completely outshines the original version. Throw in a couple of great instrumentals (especially the beautifully written “Arizona Bay”) and two well-chosen covers (a duet with Will Oldham on Neil Young’s “Through My Sails” and an extremely bleak version of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations”) and you have a grim little masterpiece on your hands.

While the record has been available “across the pond” since this spring, it will not be released in the US until October 16th. This is great news, of course, for those who appreciate the Soulsavers’ excellent brand of electronic music. Unfortunately, it will likely fall on deaf ears. After all, mainstream radio even ignored Mark Lanegan’s excellent music with the Screaming Trees when grunge was en vogue! Do yourself a favor: if you are a Lanegan fan… don’t let this release go unnoticed, as the Soulsavers just might have brought out the best in him. It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s the Way You Land may not be the next big thing with the kiddies, and it’s definitely not going to get any parties started, but it just may be the best sparse, dark album since Johnny Cash’s original American Recordings.

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