There Was Magic, Then... - The Gentle Waves
To Salt A Scar - The Gentle Waves
Song For Baby - Isobel CampbellAs a vocalist, Isobel Campbell isn't notable for her range, novelty or potency--just plain old charm, and a wan-faced, flagging, late afternoon cafe charm at that. She sings like the kind of girl always asking (sweetly, of course) her more energy-blessed compatriots to fetch glasses of water or pick up her dry cleaning. (And they're happy to do it.) The kind of girl who, in an early Modernist novel, might have reclined in deck chairs with lap blankets tucked tightly around her, smiling beatifically, malady unspecified, death cooling its heels just beyond the bend. (If you're familiar with these narratives, you know that death perversely picks off the horse-healthy first.)
Belle & Sebastian probably didn't make enough of Campbell's thin purr, and with her own projects (recorded under The Gentle Waves, her own name, and most recently with Mark Lanegan) she preens like a neglected kitten startled but pleased to be receiving attention. Which means she's a little awkward, often a half step behind the beat and not particularly skilled at adjusting elaborate arrangements to her vocal limitations. A song like "There Was Magic, Then..." from Gentle Waves' second record Swansong For You (US, UK) is an absurdly plush, full-string-section number against which by all rights a sumptuary tax should be levied. In parts, the song suits her--particularly the lone Hungarian-sounding violin that introduces sepia-tinged words like "When I was a girl, I dreamt of dancing/I dreamt of many things that I could own." But as a gorgeous, drunken orchestra swells and swells and swells, Campbell half drowns in the mix, subsumed in its musical brocades and mohair velvets. And you can't help but wonder if her voice is better suited to some of the less ambitious songs on The Gentle Waves' first album, The Green Fields of Foreverland (US, UK). "To Salt A Scar," for example, is a relatively austere--and specific--track that goes somewhere musically instead of wallowing in vague prettiness.
Preceding critical reservations aside, there's something in Campbell that's undeniably effective and affecting. And I think it boils down to a factor as simple, and as difficult, as good songwriting. A trained cellist and a musical polymath, her classical, jazz and Latin ideas are as deftly executed and believable as her pop exercises. "Song For Baby" from Amorino (US, UK) offers a sophisticated bossa nova swing, lilting melody and just the right kinds of pacing, tensions and interludes. There's nothing accidental or amateur about it, making Campbell's little girl lost persona an interesting conceit, but a conceit all the same.