2006 already appears to be the year of the collaboration - only a few months in and we've already seen plenty of co-operative efforts in a variety of genres. Occasionally you get collaborative projects which bring out the very best in both acts involved (last year's Iron and Wine and Calexico pairing rejuventated the work of both acts), whereas sometimes they simply feel like enforced artistic compromises. Certainly, one of the most tedious interview questions that Saturday morning TV presenters always use to keep vacuous pop stars talking is 'so who would you like to collaborate with?'. When a tediously predictable answer is given, the presenter often tries to generate excitement with a 'oooh - you heard it here first, perhaps we can get them together' or another similar remark. How dull.
Yet sometimes collaborations have real merits, and the pairings between celebrated independent artists rarely seem to gain a comparable level of attention from indie communities and the media. How else to explain the absurd absence of the Calexico/Iron and Wine project from all the major UK end of year lists? How else to explain the perversely indifferent reviews greeting 'The Brave and The Bold', a meeting of the glorious musical minds of Tortoise and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy? It's a comfortingly natural combination - although the dense analogue synths and jazz leanings of Tortoise do provide a refreshingly unfamiliar context for Will Oldham's well-worn and perpetually cracking vocals. 'The Brave and The Bold' is a pretty audacious title for an album, particularly when it's that most unfashionable and unpopular beast - a covers album. Yet this is no straightforward record - there are some peculiar song selections, ranging from the devoutly uncool (Elton John's 'Daniel', not necessarily a surprise when Oldham has previously covered R Kelly) to the predictably arty (Devo's 'That's Pep!'). It's undoubted highlight is an absolutely superb reworking of Bruce Springsteen's 'Thunder Road'. Most commentators have bemoaned the fact that the heady rush, Spector-esque excess and sheer bravado of Springsteen's original have been jettisoned here in favour of something more elusive. Well, good. There's no point in covering a song note for note - and Oldham here finds an inherent melancholic desolation beneath all the posturing. He bends the melody and produces a desparation and sadness that the Springsteen of Nebraska, Tom Joad and Devils and Dust would no doubt approve of. Behind him, Tortoise slow the song down to a Crazy Horse thud and pad out the sound with a range of analogue synth flourishes. Clarence Clemons' familiar cascading saxophone melody is retained at the song's climax, but is reworked as a minor key lament. If all cover versions could be this clever, then the art of song interpretation would still be alive and well.
Elsewhere, The Minutemen's 'It's Expected I'm Gone' is transformed from spiky attack to restrained avant-drone, the take on 'That's Pep!' best demonstrates Tortoise's rhythmic sophistication and Oldham's delivery of Richard Thompson's 'Cavalry Cross' is deeply felt and sympathetic, his occasional ironic smokescreen thoroughly cleared. This album works so well because it makes an eclectic song selection sound bizarrely logical and because, unlike Oldham's covers of his own material on the 'Greatest Palace Music' collection, there's no wilful perversity here, just sheer intelligence and genuine enthusiasm for the material.
The Scottish Arts Council have generously funded a joint project from former Belle and Sebastian member Isobel Campbell and former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan. 'Ballad Of The Broken Seas' plays true to its title, with a meticulously crafted atmosphere and tension, recreating the sound of sea shanties and murder ballads so that it sounds traditional in the most evocative of ways. The arrangements are frequently superb, with the tremulous strings of 'The False Husband' and the propulsive percussion of 'Saturday's Gone' being particular highlights.
Still, there's no denying that something is missing here. The obvious comparisons with the work of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra have already been made - but they do Lee and Nancy something of a disservice. Whilst Campbell's delicate, slightly sinister vocals (she rarely rises above a whisper here) ought to work well with Lanegan's threatening drawl, there is rarely any kind of chemistry between the two. This may well be a product of Lanegan recording vocals in LA, with Campbell mostly recording her parts in Scotland. This kind of process occasionally yields inspired results, the best example probably being the Postal Service project, where Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello from Dntel worked separately to produce a collaborative work with greater impact than anything recorded by their respective bands. It hasn't yielded such impressive results here though. Some of the songs seem tentative, or perhaps even strangely unfinished. 'It's Hard To Kill A Bad Thing' for example is elegant and beautiful, and its wistful theme could have been developed into an excellent song. As an instrumental interlude however, it feels like mere filler. The waltzes ('Dusty Wreath' and '(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?') don't quite achieve the tension to which they clearly aspire, the former being somewhat soporiphic and the latter suffering badly from mismatched vocal parts.
Whilst this album reveals more with every listen, and it's satisfying to here Lanegan move away from his drug preoccupied lyrics, this lacks the stylistic diversity of his best solo work. The uniformity of pace and mood becomes a little stifling over the space of an entire album and, on the whole, the songs are not memorable enough to render it anything more than a pleasant curio. Clearly, there are pitfalls as well as virtues in transferring these projects from theory to reality.
Apparently, Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris have been working on the duets that comprise 'All The Roadrunning' in their spare time over the last seven years. If it really has been that long, it's an interesting possibility that it may have been Knopfler who encouraged Harris to pursue her songwriting muse so late in her career with the sublime 'Red Dirt Girl' and 'Stumble Into Grace' albums. There feels to me like there's still another great album left in Harris to round out a masterful trilogy and perhaps the most frustrating thing about 'All The Roadrunning' is that it delays that project probably by at least another couple of years. Still, this is still a meeting between two heavyweight singer-songwriters and, pleasingly, it has a good deal of merit, despite a tendency to drift into bland, over-polished productions.
The voices of Knopfler and Harris would not seem like the most comfortable of matches on paper. Knopfler has always had a laid back, half spoken delivery, whilst Harris' voice is one of the most distinctive and idiosyncratic in the country idiom (you can hear her influence now in the work of Iris DeMent). Yet, in recent years Harris has tempered her tendency to flick unpreditably between different vocal registers, and she sounds remarkably at ease here. Knopfler has also altered his style slightly but perceptibly - he sounds smoother and more considered here, and inhabits the country idiom with sympathetic understanding and genuine enthusiasm for the music. Initial reviews have complained that Harris is too frequently 'relegated' to providing harmony vocals, but this neglects the fact that she is the greatest living female harmony singer in this genre. To me, she seems to sing a fair amount of lead here anyway.
The songs here deal with long term romance, family life, domestic contentment and disappointment. A certain twee sentimentality pervades (of the kind that Iris DeMent captured more convincingly and with more variety on 'My Life') but doesn't smother the carefully contrived feel of the songs. None are quite as remarkable as any of the songs Harris penned for her last two albums (10 of the 12 are Knopfler compositions), but they are rarely anything less than pleasant. For the most part, Knopfler resists the urge to add lengthy virtuosic guitar solos into the mix, instead opting for intervening phrasing that neatly complements the vocal lines. There is an applealing range of pace - the title track has an endearing lilt, whilst 'This Is Us' is bristling rockabilly. Best of all is 'Rollin' On', with its slight hint of reggae rhythms, and the clear influence of Harris' 'Stumble Into Grace' album arriving at just the right time. On 'Red Staggerwing', Knopfler and Harris trade lines with genuine chemistry. Some may find all this a little too mawkish for comfort - but familiarity with the idiom suggests that the sincerity is not misplaced.
Some moments are nice enough - but the arrangements fail to take them anywhere particularly exciting. 'I Dug Up A Diamond' has a sweet melody, but Knopfler's delivery is so dry as to sound faintly disinterested. Throughout, the album suffers from errors of judgement in the production. The drum sound has been processed in that thoroughly distasteful eighties way, so that every snare beat sounds slightly artificial and is engineered to precisely the same volume. What drummer actually plays like this and what drum kit ever sound this way? Muso drummer objections aside, this is a satisfying and enjoyable album that doesn't quite achieve the kind of alchemy of which a combination of this kind of talent should be capable. It sounds genuine and carefully contrived - even if in its attempt to run 'all the road' it too often settles for staying in the middle.
Slipping quietly out with almost no fanfare is 'Born Again In The USA', the wittily titled second album from US indie supergroup Loose Fur, comprised of Jeff Tweedy and Glen Kotche from Wilco and the ubiquitous Jim O' Rourke. The first Loose Fur album remains one of the most criminally under-appreciated album of the decade so far - an ingeniously funny and explorative take on the traditional rock idiom. 'Born Again...' doesn't quite repeat the same trick, although it has plenty of zest and intelligence. O' Rourke's characteristically perverse humour provides what, for many, will be a most welcome counterpoint to Tweedy's tendency for 'woe-is-me' seriousness (in fact, even Tweedy lightens up a bit here) and Kotche's drumming contributions are ceaselessly unorthodox and inventive. The title hints at evangelism, and some of the songs here strike at the manipulating tendencies of fudamentalist religious perspectives with wry and pithy skill. Best of these is the supremely mordant 'The Ruling Class', which imagines a reborn Jesus in modern day America.
Musically, it's less oblique than Wilco's 'A Ghost Is Born' and arguably less considered too. It probably owes less to the recent Wilco albums than to O' Rourke's solo material, particularly the mix of wistful acoustic balladry and crunching riffage found on 'Insignificance'. There's plenty of that 70s harmonised lead guitar sound that adds a muso quality to the mix and which also renders the album marvellously unfashionable. The playing is undulating and unpredictable and the whole album has a sense of unbridled fun - any sense of pressure completely alleviated.
A rather different collaboration appears in the form of 'My Flame Burns Blue', a recording of a live concert performed by Elvis Costello with the Metropole Orkest. This excellent live album serves as a useful summary of Costello's work outside the guitar-dominated sound for which he is most well known, particularly his occasional dabbling in formal composition. More importantly, it also provides an essential rebuke to those critics who dismiss him for exploring different genres and approaches. This performance comes across neither as stuffy nor pretentious - at its best, it has a spontaneity not usually associated with arranged band music and benefits from some considered and effective reworkings of familiar material.
The material for this set has been thoughtfully selected, ranging as it does from rarely performed selections from the Attractions/Imposters repertoire to commissioned compositions for orchestras and music festivals. It opens with the relentless, roaring 'Hora Decubitas', Costello's own attempt to provide lyric and melody for a work by Charles Mingus. It also sees Costello attempting to get to grips with the horror and confusion of 9/11, which he does with considerably more subtlely than many others have managed. The title track also refashions the work of a legendary jazz composer - Billy Strayhorn - with appropriately powerful results.
The concert also captured a near-perfect balance between humour and emotional clarity. The latter is most clearly on display during a carefully controlled and powerful rendition of 'Favourite Hour', a song from the underrated 'Brutal Truth' album describing the build up to an execution. Similarly 'Speak Darkly, My Angel' and 'Almost Ideal Eyes' are characterised by depth and conviction. Elsewhere, both singer and band sound like they are having tremendous fun. The Metropole Orkest may be the only jazz big band with a string section, but this doesn't mean they lend themselves to the lachrymose. They have an Ellingtonian swing of the the highest order. All this comes to the fore on the intricate, highly entertaining arrangement of 'Clubland', which ignores convention in buckling unpredictably between sections covering entirely different rhythmic approaches. Also, the goofy take on 'Watching The Detectives' (delivered in the style of a seventies cop show theme) brings new light to one of Costello's most well known songs.
It's arguable that the arrangements sometimes become busy and over-complicated. In this light, it's striking that one of the most successful performances is 'Episode Of Blonde', where the Orkest cherry pick elements of the original arrangement that were played on guitar and reproduce them as piercingly accurate staccato brass interventions. The experiment mostly works comfortably, however, and Costello is in fine voice throughout. He sounds entirely comfortable fronting this substantial band and rarely ever sounds strained or hesitant. He really inhabits this alternative approach to his material. Costello recently said of Bettye Lavette that she was someone not content to stay within her comfort zone but was always pushing herself into new territory. That he has applied the same criteria to himself should be cause for celebration rather than cynical sniping. It's hard to believe that there will be a more comprehensively enjoyable live album this year.
Gnarls Barkley is neither a person, nor a character in a children's TV series. It is in fact a collaboration between producer du jour Dangermouse and singer/rapper Cee-Lo Green. Both have produced remarkable material on their own - Dangermouse with his infamous mash-up of The Beatles and Jay-Z, Green with his outstanding 2004 album 'Cee Lo Green Is The Soul Machine'. Their 'St Elsewhere' album is a stunning meeting of minds - and one of the most audacious and fascinating albums to break through into the pop mainstream in a long time.
Whereas most hip hop and R&B albums clock in at 70+ minutes and tend to suffer from indulgent interruptions in the form of skits and pointless instrumental jams, 'St. Elsewhere' is crisp and admirably brief. Predictably, production trickery abounds, from the playful manipulation of pitch and speed on the beserk 'Transformer', to the sleek hip hop atmospherics of 'Feng Shui'.
'St. Elsewhere' covers a bizarre and unusual range of genres, but Green's powerful vocals prove adept in a variety of contexts, from the soulful howling of the title track to the existential confusion of 'Just A Thought'. On the single 'Crazy', his nuanced vocals help create a timeless atmosphere, in spite of the obvious studio intervention. It's sublime. 'St. Elsewhere' is radically unpredictable, even taking in an entirely unexpected refashioning of The Violent Femmes' 'Gone Daddy Gone' which, if anything, amplifies the stark energy of the original. It even works when Dangermouse elects to put far too much into the mix. The opening 'Go Go Gadget Gospel' is a confounding mess of parping brass and layered vocals. It shouldn't work, but somehow it ends up making perfect sense.
Both artists seem to have brought their expertise to the project, and the credible artistry of both has arguably been enhanced rather than merely sustained by this challenging and highly enjoyable work.