Campbell offers listeners more of what they’ve come to expect, the title becoming all the more knowing the more one delves into her oeuvre.
For more than 25 years, Isobel Campbell has been the archetypal twee vocalist. Hers is a voice so delicate it threatens to float away on the breeze of an overly sibilant consonant. It was during her brief time with indie darlings Belle & Sebastian on several of their career-defining recordings that she made a name for herself and established the aesthetic that would come to define her own subsequent career both as a collaborator and solo artist. Since her 2003 solo debut, Amorino, Campbell has released a handful of recordings, the majority of which stick to her basic sonic framework, occasionally expanding to include slightly more present instrumentation and aural support in the form of vocal foils. For her first album in nearly a decade, There Is No Other…, she offers listeners more of what they’ve come to expect, the title becoming all the more knowing the more one delves into her oeuvre.
Campbell’s feather-light voice is on full display throughout (as much as such a thing is possible for an instrument so vaporous), flitting in and out of delicately-constructed arrangements built atop acoustic guitars and the occasional keyboard or synth for stylistic variance. While solidly executed, one has to be in the proper mood to consume such impossibly twee music. Of course, anyone coming to Campbell to begin with will likely be enamored of such music to begin with, given her brief but notable period in the mid-‘90s with twee icons Belle & Sebastian. Little has changed within her vocal range or timbre in the decades since, and the bulk of her sound on There Is No Other… is essentially a variation on a theme (the latter being her impossibly delicate vocal approach).
It’s almost too much without a foil like Stuart Murdoch or, more recently (and somewhat improbably) Mark Lanegan to help temper her lack of stylistic variance within her perhaps intentionally limited vocal range. “Vultures” is an ASMR nightmare for those (like this reviewer) completely turned off by the phenomenon and its practitioners enamored of cringe-inducingly close microphone work. Thankfully, it’s one of the only moments on the album that heightens this quality of Campbell’s voice. The remainder offers listeners something more to hold onto in the former of (relatively speaking) burlier instrumentation and melodic distraction. “The Heart of It All,” with its backing choir, gently galloping chorus and California-sun-drenched acoustic guitars is downright gorgeous and makes the more insufferable moments wholly worthwhile.
The album’s most incongruous moment comes within the first few minutes with a left-field cover of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream.” Not only is it an odd song choice within the context of the album, it’s reliance on plodding synths and electronic drums makes it stick out like a sore thumb. So tonally jarring is the track that, placed in the second position as it is, it completely takes the listener out of the gently immersive experience afforded by the bulk of the album.
“Hey World” is a barely-there bit of twee platitudes that finds Campbell borderline crooning in a Zooey Deschanel-esque voice that isn’t found anywhere else on the album. Coming as it does after the relative uptick that is “The Heart of It All,” it’s as though those involved with the album suddenly came to life and decided to make an album that wouldn’t necessarily put everyone listening to it immediately to sleep or into a gentle, ASMR-induced coma. Its rather surprising gospel vocal outro is one of a handful of random joys that crop up across the album helping to make it far more interesting than it has the right to be.
But this is Campbell’s gift as a somewhat one-note vocalist, her ability to call on others to help bolster her recordings either instrumentally or texturally to help make for a far more compelling listen. “The National Bird of India” rides a vaguely Eastern drone and string-based melody that wends its way in and out of Campbell’s standard breathy recitation, resulting in one of the album’s better tracks. “Boulevard” functions in a similar manner, its subject matter firmly rooted in the West Coast and wrapped in a hazy gauze of plaintive acoustic guitars, contemplative cello and gently propulsive percussion resulting in a sound akin to her forays into British folk circa Milk White Sheets.“Counting Fireflies” follows a similar tact, although veering slightly into more Americana territory thanks to the twangier acoustic guitar figure on which the song is based.
In all, There is No Other… finds Campbell doing what she has done and will likely continue to do best: offering up a collection of inoffensive, lightweight songs, each more often than not perfectly suited to her very specific, breathy approach and presented with enough twee and nuance to keep long-time listeners happy and those just coming to her music for the first time intrigued.