Hot on the heels of Ballad of the Broken Seas, Isobel Campbell’s album of duets with Mark Lanegan, Milkwhite Sheets finds the Glaswegian cellist/chanteuse all by her lonesome again, with mixed results. Anchored by Lanegan’s saturnine growl, Campbell’s little-girl coo seemed uncharacteristically womanly; the dichotomy served both singers well, evoking the archetypal pairings of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. Minus Lanegan, alas, Campbell sounds flimsy and fey, like an all-piccolo orchestra or a peril-free Pauline. It’s not as if anyone expected the quintessential twee poster girl to morph into Patti Smith — the house of rock has many rooms, with plenty of space for girly-girls as well as tomboys — but Sheets suggests that she needs a bit of borrowed gravitas to keep from drifting into the ether.
Sheets uses a couple centuries’ worth of British history for ballast. A mix of newly arranged traditionals and Campbell originals, it’s yet another addition to the crowded avant-trad canon, wherein today’s hipsters wear their indie-rock hearts on their greensleeves. It’s not Campbell’s fault that her newfound passion for Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, and Jean Ritchie is suddenly old hat. Still, the fact remains that her cult-fave foremothers and a good number of her contemporaries are much better at channeling the timeless genius of Anonymous than she is. “O Love Is Teasin’” and the almost a cappella “Loving Hannah” put too much focus on her wan warble, whereas the instrumentals “James” and “Over the Wheat and Barley,” though pretty, aren’t interesting enough to get by without it. “Thursday’s Child,” an original featuring ex-Smashing Pumpkin James Iha on electric guitar and keyboards, is the least folkified song on the album and also the most successful. Speckled with tambourine and a bare-bones bass drum, its whining slide guitar and shuddering cello bolster Campbell’s fragile pipes with pillows of psychedelic haze. The song doesn’t sound remotely ancient, but it’s weighty enough to ground her.
First the bad news: Alice Smith is doomed, at least from an industry perspective. She’s both genuinely weird and genuinely talented, a recipe for failure in contemporary R&B. These days, the only refuge for a freak who’s young, gifted, and black seems to be hip-hop, which offers a back door through which the occasional Andre 3000, Cee-Lo, or Kelis can slip; For Lovers, Dreamers & Me contains many things — trumpets, electric violins, Wurlitzers — but there’s nary a guest MC or a sampled beat to be found. Never mind that Smith is an excellent songwriter with a buttery contralto and superb control. Never mind that her music, though undeniably soul-based, is ultimately uncategorizable, touching on jazz, rock, and classic pop. Never mind that her lyrics are smart, her arrangements rich and pleasing, her choice of material unorthodox but always exactly right. She’s doomed for the same reason that Res never made it, that Chocolate Genius languishes in obscurity, that no one as weird as Prince (including Prince) is welcome on the airwaves anymore.
Now for the good news: Sometimes (see above) commercial doom spells artistic triumph. Smith originals such as “Love Endeavor,” a Latin-jazz-inflected scorcher featuring Beck sidekick Smokey Hormel on guitar, and the chamber-funk workout “Dream” are ambitious but still playful and sexy; imagine a saner, more sanguine Fiona Apple. The cynical lament “Fake Is the New Real” and the yearning ballad “Know That I . . . ” are decidedly quirky but emotionally resonant, perfectly showcasing the singer’s interpretive range. Smith won’t push Mary J. and Mariah off the charts, but she’ll find plenty of love outside the mainstream.
Contact René Spencer Saller at email@example.com.