Like Lanegan's voice, Garwood's guitar playing is unique, distinctive and more than a little haunting. There is other instrumentation on the album - drum machines set the pace on some cuts ("Cold Molly", "Mescalito") and there is some well-placed piano, sitar and horns on a few of the songs - but the guitars are a perfect accompaniment for an album full of dark, understated country blues.
Here's "War Memorial" - behind Lanegan's voice and Garwood's guitars on this one is a single mournful horn - perfect for a song that consists of a soldier asking for his medals and describing the horrors he has seen, concluding: "Don't tell me the ending of the play, don't make me look in the mirror":
This is an amazing record. It's sort of a folk album, but folk blues in the tradition of artists like Skip James and John Fahey. But it's also a jazz record - a very spare, evocative kind of jazz, along the lines of McCoy Tyner or some of Coltrane's work. It gives me chills, every time I listen to it. Lanegan says his favorite two songs are the instrumentals that bookend the album. Given that this is probably just modesty, still, he fails to give himself the proper amount of credit - both his voice and Garwood's guitar are indispensable instruments here. The album would be less than it is without either part.
There are places where Garwood is apparently meandering, only to snap right into something that will take your breath away - but the meandering has its own appeal, honestly. I'm reminded of Tom Waits' observation that his favorite part of the symphony is when all the musicians are warming up, before any order is imposed from outside.
Here's "Pentecostal" - just love the way it seamlessly morphs into a spiritual a la Fahey even before Lanegan's voice comes in, and then it's pure blues:
down so long now jesus
you know i been down so long
far turned out and freezing
won’t you carry my body home
this is why i came
to live a life in a day
with a fire in my head
who’s got the keys to the workhouse?
satan has locked the door
got no wings to take us
up off of that killing floor
Most of the album is obsessed with death, and of course that's heavy theme that, in the wrong hands, can become pretty hackneyed. Sure, there are a lot of timeworn lyrical snippets from the blues canon, history and literature (including the Bible: "If death rides a white horse/Then I ain't seen him yet" from "Death Ride"). But putting those musical ideas together, like arranging notes and instruments into an inspired form, is a real skill. Otherwise, all bluesmen would be Howlin' Wolf. The skillful interplay and, most of all, the execution make this a very special record.
Here's a great interview with the two of them from Uprooted Music Revue - it gives you some insight into the mutual respect and dedication to craft that allowed these two to reach across the Atlantic to make such an intimate, nearly perfect album.
Mark Lanegan Website
Duke Garwood Facebook