By David M. Goldstein | 10 March 2012
Everyone’s got their own favorite unsubstantiated Mark Lanegan rumor, and here, on its 10th anniversary, is mine. Some background: Lanegan was an unofficial member of Queens of the Stone Age in 2002, his vocals heavily featured on Songs for the Deaf (2002), and being in a borderline mainstream, stoner rock band in 2002 meant he had the expectation of being forced to share a stage with …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, who were then riding high on the success of Source Tags and Codes (2002). The rumor? When Trail of Dead frontman Conrad Keely got too snippy backstage, Lanegan supposedly picked him up by his neck while shouting, “Go home, little boy!”
I hope that’s true because it completely ties in with the renegade image of Mark Lanegan that every thirty-something who came of age in the grunge era wants to believe. He’s the wizened, world-weary veteran, a perfectly upstanding citizen until you make the mistake of pissing him off or feeding him whiskey; Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven comes to mind. And of course Lanegan possesses that voice, the otherworldly rumble that lends instant credibility and gravitas to any of the seven hundred or so artists who’ve hired him to sing on their records.
In other words, no one’s purchasing a Mark Lanegan record expecting chipper power-pop. What you want from the man is relatively simple: tales of hard living at dirge tempo, delivered in that gravel-leaden baritone which establishes how Lanegan’s seen way more shit than you, punk. And so, despite somewhat dated production suggesting that producer (and frequent Josh Homme collaborator) Alain Johannes hasn’t purchased any new gear since 2002, Blues Funeral generally makes good on Lanegan’s reputation, as well as the expectations of anyone who’d pick this record up, providing several feel-bad tunes with which to properly soundtrack the revisionist Western in your head.
About those production values—despite the Mark Lanegan “Band” ostensibly containing such luminaries as one time Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons and bassist (also Christina Applegate hubby) Martyn Lenoble, Blues Funeral suffers from sounding a touch staid and inorganic; it’s more like a Pro Tools project than a proper performing unit. Then there’s the frequent use of electronic beats, to no one’s immediate benefit. The otherwise gnarly “St. Louis Elegy” is hamstrung by the curious use of the exact same metronomic pulse from Bubblegum (2004)-era Lanegan song “Wedding Dress,” and any brooding gravitas from closer “Tiny Grain of Truth” is made laughable by a backing track that sounds like James Lavelle had a yard sale. Lanegan’s hardly a spring chicken, but need his producer make this so obvious?
It’s to the man’s credit then that most of Blues Funeral bangs regardless, a testament to Lanegan’s songwriting ability and near legendary vocal prowess. The musical accompaniment on Blues Funeral’s best songs, “Bleeding Muddy Water” and “Gray Goes Black,” manages to achieve a grim, post-punk atmosphere not dissimilar from the first two Echo & the Bunnymen records, or Disentegration (1990)-era Cure, made even more apparent from the shimmering, Will Sargeant-style guitar solo in the latter. With discussion of both bullets and guns, gloomy weather patterns, and Lanegan’s drawn out pronunciation of the word “lord,” “Bleeding Muddy Water” is so deep into the man’s wheelhouse it flirts with self-parody, but the song remains a brooding masterpiece, properly paced at over six minutes. He also fares pretty well when kicking out the jams on the Josh Homme-assisted rocker “Riot in My House” as well as on “Quiver Syndrome,” which evokes the Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You” and contains fanciful couplets about smiling moons and Elysian Fields that only Lanegan can credibly get away with.
Then there’s the one track where the electronic aspect actually does work extremely well: the accurately titled “Ode to Sad Disco.” Over a seven-minute, stoned take on Erasure’s “Chains of Love,” Lanegan admires the children losing their minds whilst praying from the dancefloor on his knees, wrapped in a fever dream that sounds like exactly what you would expect from a 48-year-old man on ecstasy. It’s both darkly hilarious and exceedingly catchy, with a perfectly placed chiming guitar solo at the peak. Unquestionably, it’s Blues Funeral‘s highlight.
The man remains a national treasure. And Blues Funeral generally succeeds because Lanegan knows exactly what his audience wants and is willing to play to his strengths—namely, his enormous voice and predilection towards dark imagery. Plus, it’ll surely sound better live, and you get the added challenge of trying to annoy him by screaming for “Nearly Lost You” in between songs! Just, y’know, maybe keep it down if you make it backstage.