By Alyce Gilligan
November 24, 2009
Every now and then, you stumble across a gem of an album that can be played straight through, without lagging, unnecessary tracks that compel you to hit “skip” without even thinking about it. I wasn’t expecting to find this with the little-known Soulsavers, the work of UK production pair, Rich Machin and Ian Glover. But their third studio release, Broken, plays cleanly like the soundtrack to an obscure film, spinning a musical tale of spiritual wanderings set in dusty streets and whitewashed churches. Clearly, Mark Lanegan (of The Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age) is the star. One wouldn’t expect it, but his gloriously guttural tone covers a variety of emotions, from personal torment to faith restored. This skill is a necessity, as Soulsavers’ tracks are a hybrid of electronica, gritty rock and Sunday morning gospel.
The curtain lifts with “The Seventh Proof”, a stirring and static-y instrumental. This peace is quickly contrasted with shrieking guitar and Lanegan’s crooning on “Death Bells.” From there on out, he authoritatively handles most of the vocals, as he did with Soulsavers’ last release, It’s Not How Far You Fall, It’s How Hard You Land. He gets background help here and there from the likes of Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers), Mike Patton (Faith No More) and Jason Pierce (Spiritualized). But for the most part, Soulsavers correctly relies on Lanegan’s husky drawl to complement the fervency of the music. His best can be found on “You Will Miss Me When I Burn,” a pleading piano ballad (penned by Bonnie “Prince” Billy) that notes, “When you have no one, no one can hurt you.” The choir joins him on “All The Way Down” as he cries like an impassioned minister, “Pardon me for praying hard, for crying out loud.”
The message of Broken does not progress, but alternates between highs and lows, redemption and despair—appropriate for the theme of spiritual journey. To communicate this throughout the album’s 14 tracks, Soulsavers effectively employs everything from raging guitar, to trumpets and soft strings, like that of “Can’t Catch The Train”, a beautiful ode to time and this vapor life we lead. “Some Misunderstanding” is a staple acoustic-electric groove not lacking in profundity (“We all have souls, yet nobody knows how much it takes to fly”). Another sweeping instrumental arrives in “Wise Blood”, no doubt an allusion to the misplaced faith of Flannery O’Connor’s novel by the same name.
Near the end of the album, Rosa Agostino (also known as Red Ghost) steps in for Lanegan, her smooth sweet voice guiding us through “Praying Ground” and “Rolling Sky.” She convincingly finds a place to “rest her weary bones” on “By My Side.” Still, while this feminine presence is a welcome change, its simplicity doesn’t quite pack the punch of Lanegan’s syrupy baritone. Thankfully, the album reaches an epic end when Bonnie “Prince” Billy” sings “Sunrise”, the result being something like U2 on a road trip.
Soulsavers’ Broken, with all of its paradox, is remarkably whole. It leaves listeners with the conflicting desire to either raise their hands to the heavens, or throw up a lighter. Are we going to the bar, or are we headed to the church house? Maybe a little bit of both, and if it sounds like this, we must be having a good time either way. Consider me converted.