Mark Lanegan – I Am The Wolf: Lyrics and Writings (Da Capo Press)

I’m not sure if lyric books are relevant in the internet age, but still it’s nice to have a collection of lyrics from Mark Lanegan’s solo discography to display on your bookshelf. The lyrics are presented chronologically by album, starting with 1989’s The Winding Sheet, up through Gargoyles from earlier this year. Lyrics from his many collaborations and one-offs are included too. This is all good and well, as are John Cale’s preface and Moby’s foreword, but the best parts of I Am The Wolf are Lanegan’s short passages at the beginning of each chapter on the making of each album. They provide brief, but fascinating, snapshots into his often-chaotic life and his sources of inspiration at that given point in time. Lanegan doesn’t seem like the kind of self-celebrating guy who’d write a full-blown autobiography, so this may be our best opportunity to know a little more about the man behind one of the best discographies of the last thirty years. Recommended for fans.

Mark Lanegan Band – Gargoyle (PIAS/Heavenly)

There’s a significant difference between Mark Lanegan’s solo albums and Mark Lanegan Band albums. Mark Lanegan’s albums, which go all the way back to 1990’s Winding Sheet, are the folkier ones, with his Jim Morrison-meets-Tom Waits croon surrounded by more organic instrumentation. He brings the same vocal tools to the Mark Lanegan Band’s albums, however, the music behind him is built around programmed electronics. Luckily, his idea of an electronic sound isn’t sleek. The kind of beats he uses sound like an alternate timeline where he spent the back half of the ’80s fronting a New Order / JAMC / Bunnymen type of band, instead of Seattle neo-psychedelic hard rockers The Screaming Trees.

Gargoyle is his fourth Mark Lanegan Band album and it picks up pretty much exactly where 2014’s Phantom Radio left off. The lack of progression may be off-putting for some, but Phantom Radio was my favorite album of that year, so I’m perfectly thrilled to hear more of the same on Gargoyle. The man affectionately known among fans as “Dark Mark” and his rotating cast of supporting musicians (including past collaborators Alain Johannes, Greg Dulli and Josh Homme, among others) are right in their narco-gothic wheelhouse with the opening duo of “Death’s Head Tattoo” and “Nocturne”, even if the song-titles sound like they were made by a Mark Lanegan Song Title Generator. “Emperor” and “Beehive” are great upbeat songs, though the former closely resembles “The Passenger” and the latter sounds like a lost alternative rock radio hit from 1987, with some of its sound and style nicked (tastefully) from Echo and The Bunnymen’s “Lips Like Sugar” and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Sidewalking”. Lanegan puts together good slow-burning songs too, bringing the tempo down on “Sister”, “Goodbye To Beauty” and “First Day of Winter”. Those with a keen ear and a great record collection will notice that “Sister” lovingly recreates the harmonies from Wire’s “A Mutual Friend” towards the fade-out.

Despite personnel and influences changing from song to song Gargoyle is a very cohesive listening experience. It’s the combination of Mark’s unique vocal register and lyrical approach that tie it all together perfectly, and as of right now (May 19th), it’s the best new album of 2017.

Mark Lanegan Band – Phantom Radio (Vagrant Records)

Phantom Radio

Mark Lanegan is a man of many projects, but I like his solo work the best. It’s where his songs and performances have an added element of intimacy which places him in the same discussion as Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. He’s been sporadically releasing solo albums since 1990’s The Winding Sheet, and they’re all great Knowing that, I approached Phantom Radio with a bit of trepidation, brought on entirely by pre-album press naming New Order (a band I’ve never liked) as an influence and noting that the album began with recordings on an app called Funk Box. Was Lanegan about to go electro-pop?

Thankfully the answer is no. While much of Phantom Radio is built on a foundation of programmed beats and other electronica sounds, it’s nowhere close to dance-floor fodder. The music is influenced by the hypnotic proto-electronica of Kraftwerk more than anyone else, which works great with Lanegan’s deep vocals and darkly introspective lyrics. In fact, this may be his best batch of songs in twenty years. The only time I hear anything resembling New Order is “Floor of the Ocean”, which has a bass-run that can only remind you of Peter Hook – but, unlike New Order, this song has a good singer and good lyrics. “Torn Red Heart” is, for me, the album’s centerpiece; a heart-wrenching ballad with a heavenly trajectory that could have come from Spacemen 3 as easily as Mark Lanegan. It ends with the hard-driving “Death Trip to Tulsa”, a title that references songs by The Stooges and Neil Young, which is a pretty great combo. Each of Phantom Radio’s ten songs are among Lanegan’s best and as of today (November 1st) it’s is my favorite album of 2014.

The promo CD given to press also comes with the five-song No Bells On Sunday EP, which you should get if you can find it. Standout tracks include “Dry Iced”, a hypnotic number with traces of Suicide’s “Cheree”, and the ethereal title song which has a Joy Division funeral march vibe to it.

Mark Lanegan – Imitations (Vagrant)

Mark Lanegan has spent almost thirty years now as a singing jack-of-all-trades, lending his weighty (and increasingly rough-edged) voice to a variety of projects running the stylistic gamut from electronica to folk to hard-rock, and many points between. His talents are always best displayed on his solo albums, where his introspective performances with perfectly with the backing music. Imitations is his eighth solo album, and his second to feature all covers (the first, I’ll Take Care Of You, is highly recommended). On it, Mark looks back to a handful of songs from his parents’ record collection that informed his own approach to songwriting. It includes Lanegan-ified takes on Sinatra (both Frank and Nancy, with covers of “Pretty Colors” and “You Only Live Twice”, respectively), no less than three Andy Williams songs (“Lonely Street”, “Autumn Leaves” and, the albums finest moment, a heartbreaking “Solitaire”) and a stripped down reading of “Mack The Knife” that falls right into Lanegan’s wheelhouse. The tracklist isn’t all oldies and standards though as Mark nods to more recent songs with similar themes, such as John Cale’s “I’m Not The Loving Kind” (the album’s first single), Nick Cave’s “Brompton Oratory” and Chelsea Wolfe’s “Flatlands”. He even reworks his Gutter Twins partner Greg Dulli’s “Deepest Blue” into a grizzled soul gem. Imitations’ deep introverted performances probably won’t court a huge audience (there are no Jay-Z guest spots, although celeb watchers will note that Duff McKagan plays bass on three tracks) but the truth is Lanegan’s solo albums are always moving and Imitations is no different.

Unsung: Mark Lanegan

There are three separate and distinct sides to Mark Lanegan’s singing career.

First there’s his work as singer for The Screaming Trees. History has kind of resigned the Ellensburg, Washington foursome as either a B-level grunge group or one-hit wonders. Neither term is particularly flattering, and while some of their music is a little stuck in the grunge era, they’re actually better than you might remember. Definitely better than Soundgarden or Alice In Chains to these ears. I’d include Pearl Jam in that list, but unlike Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, I never liked Pearl Jam’s music to begin with.

The second side is what is referred to in this interview,14199 as the rock equivalent of a utility infielder. While that’s a funny and astute comment on its own, the fact that Lanegan then compares himself to 1980’s baseball journeyman Rance Mulliniks is downright hilarious. Lanegans “utility work” would encompass all of his appearances as a collaborator with Queens Of The Stone Age, The Gutter Twins, Soulsavers, The Twilight Singers and Isobel Campbell. Of these varied acts, I prefer Lanegans songs with Queens Of The Stone Age the most, simply because I prefer Queens over those other bands. They rawk.

The third side of Lanegan, and the one I like the most, is his career as a solo artist. With six albums, an EP, and a host of compilation tracks to his name, Lanegan is one of the top singer-songwriters working in music today, yet nobody really knows about it. Langegan’s solo album will surprise people who only know him through other outlets. You should know up front, that if you’re expecting grizzly long-haired he-man rock, then you’re going to be largely disappointed. His solo albums are stripped down and intimate, and delve into folk, blues, r&b, soul and even a little country (but not the annoying kind). The only thing they have in common with The Screaming Trees or Queens Of The Stone Age is Lanegan’s distinct voice: Part velvety smooth, and part grit, Lanegan’s got the kind of pipes which would somehow remind you of whiskey and cigarettes even if he recorded an album of pro-Prohibition anthems. If you like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Tindersticks, and Tim Buckley you should have no problem warming up to Lanegan’s music.

If you’re wondering where to start with Lanegan’s discography, the answer is “anywhere”. All of his albums are really good, and there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. His 1990 debut, The Winding Sheet is notable for Kurt Cobain’s presence on a pair of songs, including a cover of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, which Kurt would famously cover with Nirvana for MTV Unplugged in 1994. I’ll Take Care Of You, from 1999, is an all-covers album with Lanegan tackling songs from obscure and well-chosen sources like Tim Hardin, Eddie Floyd, Buck Owens and The Gun Club. Bubblegum, from 2004, is his most rock-friendly album (perhaps explaining why it’s credited to Mark Lanegan Band, rather than just Mark Lanegan), with guest spots from PJ Harvey, Josh Homme, and Izzy and Duff from Guns’N’Roses, among others.

Lanegan’s got a new album coming out in early 2012 called Blues Funeral. It’s his first new solo album in eight years. Until then, buy everything he does. Amazon has most of his old CDs for under $5. Go. Now.

Here are a few favorites to get you in the mood: