In spite of his singularly warm, husky voice, Mark Lanegan has remained a side-note to bigger things. His occasionally great Seattle band Screaming Trees never rose anywhere near Nirvana's heights, scoring only a minor hit ("Nearly Lost You") before fading away, like so many others, into post-grunge invisibility and an eventual breakup. Throughout the group's existence, Lanegan regularly stepped away to record moody, stripped-down solo material, nodding toward notions of blues and folk on albums which, while accomplished, never really cried out for attention. In the past couple of years, Lanegan inadvertently found some fame as an adjunct Queens Of The Stone Age member, contributing vocals to Songs For The Deaf and even touring, joining the band for just a couple of songs at each show. That experience, limited as it seems, may have jump-started his work.
Bubblegum, Lanegan's sixth solo album, is the first to bear the word "band" after his name. And, while the players he's gathered hardly seem like a permanent lineup, they do provide enough of a sonic shakeup to render the not-quite name-change true: Unlike the rest of Lanegan's catalog, Bubblegum feels like the work of more than just one or two people. By adding brawn, he's lost some of his omnipresent dusty resignation. While not the huge leap from his past that its misleading title might imply, Bubblegum finally finds Lanegan exploring the traverse between rocking flannel enthusiast and down-and-out Americana-ist.
A look at the motley band (or perhaps "band") that helps shepherd Lanegan to his new position explains the album's sound: His Queens Of The Stone Age mates, particularly Josh Homme, help him flex muscles that had gone unused, pushing "Driving Death Valley Blues" and "Methamphetamine Blues" into places they couldn't have otherwise gone. Conversely, PJ Harvey shows up to play the foil on the hazy, delicate "Come To Me." (Elsewhere, former Guns N' Roses slingers Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin make no noticeable mark.) Left to his own devices, Lanegan creates some memorable death-and-drug songs: "When Your Number Isn't Up" burns slowly, nodding a bit toward Tom Waits. While the guests push and pull Lanegan in different directions, Bubblegum's songs never lose him in the translation. He'd do well to shake it up every time.