"I was worried that people just got into the first record because it was like a freak show," laughs Isobel Campbell. "You know, the young virgin being fed to Satan. That whole Hammer Horror thing." The pairing of Campbell and Mark Lanegan for 2006's Ballad Of The Broken Seas was indeed an unlikely dalliance: she the delicate waif of Belle & Sebastian fame, he the fearsome firebrand who had growled his way through Screaming Trees and Queens Of The Stone Age.
But it worked. Stuffed with creepy wayfarers' tales and folk shanties, the album was a critical and commercial success, going on to make the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize. But what many overlooked were the duo's respective roles. As well as self-producing, Campbell wrote the bulk of the songs, recording them in her native Glasgow then sending them over to LA for Lanegan to add vocals. And in her hands, the timeworn premise of the male-female duo (aging male lothario sullies doe-eyed young innocent, a la Gainsbourg / Birkin and Hazlewood / Sinatra) was given a fresh spin. "A lot of it feels like a weird kind of fate", says Campbell, "I mean, why on earth should I have met Mark? It's a funny old set-up, but it really works."
Having issued second solo LP Milkwhite Sheets in late 2006, again informed by the same eerie folk tradition, Campbell was eager to reunite with Lanegan, and it seemed the feeling was mutual. And once a second collaboration was confirmed, Campbell went into a writing frenzy, before travelling to the beautiful Allaire Studios in the Catskills mountains to begin work on the new material. Other recording took place back in Glasgow, though this time round Lanegan flew over to join Campbell in the studio, laying down his vocals over an intense week of activity.
The bruised fruit of their labour can now be heard on Sunday At Devil Dirt. An album of dust-bitten ballads and troubled wanderings, it's even darker than its predecessor. Again, Campbell and Lanegan complement each other beautifully, like silk on cracked leather. And what of the songs themselves? After Ballad Of The Broken Seas, Campbell discovered that crucible of weird old Americana, The Harry Smith Anthology Of Folk Music. It was an epiphany that fed directly into Milkwhite Sheets, and has now reached full fruition in Sunday At Devil Dirt.
With echoes of old Scandinavian folk tunes, the opening "Seafaring Song" rumbles along to plucked guitar, with the odd wheeze of accordian. As Lanegan recounts the tale of a sailor trading his worldly woes for the deadly embrace of a siren, Campbell's voice hovers behind like a shadow. Mixing sorcery and salvation, "The Raven" is draped in Scott Walker strings, death-knell bells and gorgeous harmonies. Forget the robustness of Lee'n'Nancy, these songs sound more like the doomed siblings of Hazlewood and Nina Lizell circa Cowboy In Sweden. "Who Built The Road", with its sweeping violin and snaking bass, finds tortured souls consumed by the fires of lust. As does the Leonard Cohen-like "Come On Over (Turn Me On)": "Like a blind man driving at the wheel / Like a hound dog scratching out a meal / You and I both know where you belong / Come on over, turn me on."
There are many moods here too. The chain-gang spookiness of "Back Burner" could be a lost orphan of Tom Waits. "The Flame That Burns" shuffles like a classic cowpoke ditty, where "stars reign down like dust". And with greasy slide guitar, "Shot Gun Blues" could be a vintage field recording from the Avalon Delta, sweetened by Campbell's lovely vocal. Others, like the plaintive "Keep Me In Mind Sweetheart", sound like someone kicking up the ashes of an old campfire.
In fact, Lanegan's reaction to the songs is a testament to Campbell's ever-evolving writing. "He's always been into folk music. With me, he's singing songs that are more exposed than the stuff he usually does. So it challenges him as singer. It made me so happy seeing him getting pleasure and happiness from touring the last album. And if something gives Mark Lanegan happiness, I must be some sort of wizard!"
And Sunday At Devil Dirt? It's an evocative title that conjures up images of John Sturges western-noir and lost albums by The Louvin Brothers or Marty Robbins. "I think it's very suggestive," she concurs. "If each song is a scene in some kind of play, then that's the place where it's set. It sounds to me like a movie title or Tennessee Williams play. So many of the songs are about salvation and being wayward and somewhere off the path of righteousness. With the experiences I had making the record, I think it all fits. At the very least, I've made an album I've really fought for, like it was my child."