Isobel Campbell - Milkwhite Sheets
Record Label - V2 Records
Release Date - November 7, 2006
Isobel Campbell ‘s Milkwhite Sheets is the follow up to the country-tinged Ballad of The Broken Seas, which she recorded with former Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan in 2006 as well. Milkwhite Sheets was conceived and recorded during and after her Nationwide Mercury Prize short-listed collaboration with Lanegan, however the album displays a much different side of Campbell’s musical personality. Glancing at Campbell’s previous works, the last adjective that should come to mind is “satanic”, yet that is how the metal-loving guy who mastered the album described Milkwhite Sheets. While Ballad of The Broken Seas found Campbell dabbling with the country genre, Milkewhite Sheets finds Campbell embracing her folk influences that include Shirley Collins and Anne Briggs. The album features roughly half a dozen renditions of traditional English and Scottish folk songs in addition to the original compositions written by Campbell, which may come as a surprise to many fans.
Most of the tracks on Milkwhite Sheets are driven solely by acoustic guitar and cello creating a sparse sound that is simplistic on the surface, but the sound accurately captures the “feminine, animalistic, and pagan” description Campbell has given to the album. While Milkwhite Sheets begins with two hushed folk ballads in “O Love Is Teasin and Willow’s Song”, the first track written by Campbell (“Yearning”) is less gloomy than its predecessors. The gently strummed acoustic melodies and well-utilized cello accompaniment accentuate Campbell’s wispy vocals perfectly. The instrumental “James” was written for James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins fame after he showed her open tunings on her guitar. This melodic instrumental features a utilization of acoustic guitar, bongos, and cello to create an uplifting track that does not carry the underlying feeling of darkness and mystery that the other tracks create.
“Beggar, Wiseman, and Thief” was inspired by a short story titled “The Otherside” by Count Stenbock, and focuses on a woman’s ardent desire to be wed to a man who is a werewolf. Tragically, the woman of the song is killed in the river, causing the werewolf to roam the land howling over the loss of the love. Combining this old tale with Campbell’s singsong vocal delivery and tranquil acoustic guitar accompaniment, this song has the feel of a nursery rhyme designed for the hyper-literate set. Following “Beggar, Wiseman, and Thief” is “Loving Hannah”, a cover of a ballad that finds a man longing after a woman he loves but cannot have. This soul baring cover finds Campbell singing with no instrumental accompaniment and adds a sense of vulnerability to the record. Milkwhite Sheets closes with “Thursday’s Child”, an unexpected collaboration with James Iha who plays electric guitar and keyboard. The use of electric guitar adds a sense of personality that seems devoid in the other compositions on the album, allowing it to stand out from the other 13 tracks that make up Milkwhite Sheets. At a sprawling 7 minute length, “Thursday’s Child” hints at the sort of haunting folk Campbell was capable of on this record, but sadly did not always deliver.
Milkwhite Sheets is a complex record that listeners will either love or hate. While the record is roughly standard length at 46 minutes, the songs tend to drag as you get further into the record and it becomes less of an experience and more of an endurance test. Overall, the album is a fulfilling folk album that occasionally uses its minimalist sound to its advantage, but it is not for the casual folk fan or those looking for an Isobel Campbell album that is easily accessible.