Ballad of the Broken Seas revives one of the more delightful pop subgenres: the Beauty and the Beast duet. You know the drill: A willowy chanteuse is paired with a dissolute he-bear—a pretty, ethereal voice paired with a croak—and noirish, or horny, or noirishly horny music results. The touchstones are Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood and, especially, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. More recently, Polly Harvey and Nick Cave gave it a whirl.
Here the principals are Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle and Sebastian, and Mark Lanegan, a growler who fronted the negligible grunge band Screaming Trees, and they do the tradition proud. They've studied their Sinatra and Hazlewood: Campbell glowers on the album cover beneath Nancy's beehive hairdo, and the music is Hazlewood-style Old West gothic, with finger-picked minor chords, sawing fiddles, and blasts of reverbed guitar and pedal steel. They pull this off with tongues in cheek, but never topple into kitsch—not even when Campbell answers Lanegan's raspy spoken verses by cooing a chorus in Latin. And in songs like " Ramblin' Man," a dusky setting of the Hank Williams standard, they exploit the dramatic possibilities of the duet form, as Campbell's whispered verses subvert Lanegan's macho man braggadocio. Note to the Little Willies: This is how you do a cover tune.