Isobel Campbell does not possess one of those conventional female pretty folk voices. Her tone is too weak, pallid and breathy. She does not articulate with strong intonations. No one would mistake her for Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Sandy Denny or any from that school of singing. The Scottish lass’s vocals sometimes are so ethereal that they get lost behind the acoustic orchestrations. At first the effect comes across as uninspired. Why doesn’t she sing louder? But then the purpose becomes clear. The former founding member of Belle and Sebastian’s gentle approach forces the listener to be still. The music washes over like beads of rain on the green leaves of spring. She creates tiny reveries that blossom into tender epiphanies of the heart.
Perhaps Campbell learned how to do this through her cello playing, that instrument whose timbre most closely resembles the aching voice. Certainly her nimble bowing on the instrumental tunes here, such as her original composition “Over the Wheat and the Barley” and Jim McCulloch’s (ex-Soup Dragons) “Milkwhite Sheets”, break one’s heart with nary a word. She expresses bittersweet longing by keeping the arrangements plain and letting the wood and strings express the sentiments. Fellow Glaswegian McCulloch, who plays acoustic guitar on much of the record, deserves special acclaim for his fine fingerings. Also worthy of mention is former Smashing Pumpkin James Iha, who plays on one cut and has another one named after him (“James”) because of open tunings on the guitar that he showed Campbell, according to the liner notes.
Campbell mixes together instrumental tunes with lyrical ones as well as newly written self-penned compositions with traditional ballads. She frequently begins a song as soon as the previous one has ended so that it’s difficult to ascertain exactly where a particular piece ends and the next one begins. The album possesses an organic unity of different elements. Think earth, sky, wind, water, but don’t forget the human component. The music may be dreamy, but it’s always passionate.
For example, the song “Yearning” with its clipped vocals make clear emotions are intimately connected with carnal desires. As Campbell plays deep and low long cello lines that suggest the cravings of one body for another, her short vocalizations imply that she has trouble containing her wants. Still, the detailed arrangement of voice and instrumentation are blended together so that the control of feelings becomes one more way of intensifying and punctuating the inner need. Abstinence makes the corporal ache stronger on Campbell’s original song, but this is just as true on other tunes such as the traditional lament “Are You Going to Leave Me”, with its percussive rhythm that evokes the thunder of the heart when it knows betrayal will occur as naturally as the changing of the seasons. Time will change affairs of the heart and there is nothing one can do, but that doesn’t mean quiet acquiescence.
The analogous seems true for non-physical love. Consider the fairy tale “Beggar, Wiseman or Thief”, which concerns a romance between a sweet maid and a wolf. Campbell wrote the song, but it sounds as old-fashioned as anything the Grimm Brothers ever collected, as she sings tenderly of roses and wild feelings. The true love between different species may never be consummated physically but has left an indelible mark on the both of them. This is also the case with the weepy “Loving Hannah”, about a love gone sour. The a capella vocals shows the loneliness of the singer. Campbell takes on the male role of a person forsaken by his true love. He goes down to the river to weep, but his pain implies he may take more drastic actions.
Campbell recorded the album Milkwhite Sheets before her Mercury Prize nominated collaboration with Mark Lanegan, Ballad of the Broken Seas, but in many ways this seems a more mature work. Or maybe it just seems a more timeless disc because of its deep connections to old folk music. Campbell dedicated this disc to her foremothers Shirley Collins, Jean Ritchie, and Anne Briggs. But Collins and Ritchie were gallant nightingales where Campbell is winsome and reflective. Maybe Briggs, who Richard Thompson described best in his semi-fictional ballad to her called “Beeswing”, was as delicate, but Campbell’s sensitivity is of a stronger variety, like those cables they make out of spider webs that can hold tons of steel. Don’t forget, the heart is the strongest muscle in the human body.