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Isobel Campbell: Amorino

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if you like this you'll like: Belle and Sebastian, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gentle Waves, Nick Drake, Billie Holiday, chamber jazz, 70s French film-scores, Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.

REVIEW: Isobel Campbell: Amorino
1.18.2004 by Sean

Isobel Campbell: Amorino [Instinct, 2003] (mp3s)

Three words? ooh la la

It takes a lot of bravery to record a 2003 album full of coos, gentle jazzy strums, Morricone strings and ebb-and-flow vocals. It takes even more to put a sketch of your face on the cover, backed in pink and decorated with butterflies and ladybugs. Or to call yourself merely "Isobel," like some world-famous french chanteuse.

But Isobel Campbell's pluck has been understood for a while. When she left Belle & Sebastian earlier this year, it was both a surprise and a long inevitability. On the one hand, the cellist/vocalist was one of the cardigan-clad band's founding members - one of its songwriters, one of its familiar voices. On the other, her releases as Gentle Waves indicated that she was eager to go it alone, even if that 'going alone' was largely made up of Belle & Sebastian mimicry.

Amorino, however, is a lovely break from the twee-by-rote compositions that so bogged down both the Gentle Waves releases, and B&S' 2003 release, Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Campbell bailed from the band before they entered the studio with T.A.T.U. producer Trevor Horn, and her sure voice here here vindicates the decision twice-over. While Dear Catastrophe Waitress initially feels like an evolution for the Glasgow band, it's essentially the same same kindly stuff dressed up in glitzier suede clothes; rather than concentrating on improving the songs, getting them back up to the level of Tigermilk or If You're Feeling Sinister, they're simply going through the same motions - albeit with perkier drum-beats.

Campbell, however, has followed some of her old band's impulses to their logical conclusions, letting the baroque flourishes blossom into wide, melancholy landscapes. From the unsettling opening notes of the title track - where harpsichord and flute slink like villains in a French crime film - the emphasis is on timbre, instrumentation and arrangement. Campbell's childlike voice lilts and serenades, rarely rising above a whisper, the words laid out with simultaneous care and careless ease. Several instrumentals further underline the importance of sound to the record - it's the horns, upright bass, piano and drum-splashes that define the mood here, more than Campbell's simple, romantic lyrics. "The Breeze Whispered Your Name," in particular, is a marvel. A light beat skips open, Isobel singing with reserved happiness, until her voice tumbles away, deep piano notes falling across the song like a shadow over frosted glass, and then Campbell's own trumpet slides in between the tune's ribs. She plays with the trumpet's idiosyncrasies, from Cootie Williams' clear, sharp snicker, to rubbed squeaks and theremin-like wails. It's a beautiful, haunting extension of what Belle & Sebastian played with, and far more sophisticated.

Elsewhere on the album, she strides confidently from one jazzy style to another. "The Cat's Pyjamas" is a gay Dixieland romp, an energized twin to Billie Holiday's "When You're Smiling." "October's Say" is like a sighing interlude from Austin Powers; "Johnny Come Home" might as well come from an Antonio Carlos Jobim songbook; "This Land Floods With Milk" almost evokes the Nick Drake of Bryter Layter; and "Love for Tomorrow" is like the best parts of all of the Campbell-sung Belle & Sebastian cuts. While sometimes the pieces lag, stretching on a little too long, and they always feel light - alluring fluffy clouds, not life-changing rainstorms, - it's hard to grow bored during the album's forty-five minute running-length. Amorino isn't just pleasant - it's the mysterious woman in the short black dress, the one whose laugh is like a bell, whose stare is more than pretty: the one who's a gentle and sexy adult.

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