Mark Lanegan has one of the most distinctive voices I have ever heard, and it only gets better with age. His new collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood is titled Black Pudding, and has just been released on the Ipecac label. I must say that darkness has never sounded as inviting as this. Black Pudding is a record that will take you anywhere you choose to go, but be careful. Listen closely enough you may just find yourself at the crossroads Robert Johnson once sang about. Listen again and you will find yourself saying yes to the inevitable question, for this is music that simply cannot be denied, and easily one of the best albums of 2013.
Back in 1989, when Lanegan was making his bones with Screaming Trees, Chris Rea released an album titled The Road to Hell. It remains a touchstone for me of just how powerful a tool the voice can be, especially when coupled with a disarmingly simple musical arrangement. I had kind of forgotten about that record, but was reminded of it when I heard Black Pudding. Not so much the songs themselves, but in the way Lanegan's voice is utilized. As much as I loved the Trees, in many ways I felt that his voice worked best with as little accompaniment as possible. Sure, this is an observation that could have been made 23 years ago, when he released his first solo album The Winding Sheet. But his voice has deepened considerably since then, and sounds even stronger today.
This "less is more" approach serve him and Garwood well. The album opens with "Black Pudding," a solo guitar piece by Garwood. Duke Garwood seems to instinctively know how to get the most out of his guitar, without ever appearing to break a sweat. Unlike far too many players, he does not need to act like he is a guitar hero, even if he is one. Garwood is the perfect foil for Lanegan, with a manner of playing that is as personal, and as distinctive as his partner's vocals are.
Much like Kurt Cobain did during Nirvana's performance of Leadbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" Lanegan sometimes makes it feel as if you are intruding on a private reverie. This is shown to hauntingly beautiful effect on tracks such as "Pentecostal," "Shade of the Sun," and especially "Sphinx."
Black Pudding's centerpiece comes with the one-two punch of "Death Rides a White Horse," and "Thank You." The combination of Garwood's various instrumental accompaniments, Lanegan's voice, and lyrics which feel as if they were written during a fever dream is very powerful, and difficult to describe. As longtime fans know, Lanegan's music is very personal. The truth is, I do not generally play his recordings for others, I usually listen to them alone. More than any other current artist I can think of, I feel a connection to his music. Yes, I am aware that I sound like a stalker, but tough shit. Other fans will know exactly what I am talking about, and that is enough.
I do not know much about Duke Garwood, other than the fact that he plays multiple instruments very well. But as a Washingtonian, I know a bit about Lanegan, and most especially about the place he once called home. Ellensburg, WA is a weird town on the edge of the nowhere that is Eastern Washington. I remember hearing him once say something to effect of "Out here, people can just disappear," and if you have ever been there, you would know exactly what he was talking about. It is that nearly metaphysical feeling I get in the desert at night that informs everything Lanegan does for me.
25 years ago, I wonder how he would have answered if someone had thought to ask him, "Do you want Beatles-level success for Screaming Trees, or to be mentioned in the same breath as Nick Drake as a solo artist?" I'm pretty sure I know the answer, although he would probably demur at the comparison to Drake. In any case, the "cult of Lanegan" is real, and he deserves to have such a devoted fan base. Very few artists are able to develop such a rapport with their audience, and it is the honesty and integrity of him that has made it happen.
In closing, I would like to repeat the fact that I think Black Pudding is one of the finest albums I have heard this year. To take that a little further though, I recommend checking out some of his earlier material as well. Mark Lanegan has been recording for a long time now, with a number of different people, and traveled all over the world.
Yet, no matter what he does, that haunted desert is never far away. It is ingrained in his voice, and once you have heard it, you will never forget it.