As Dark Mark, singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan has himself a merry little Christmas | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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As Dark Mark, singer-songwriter Mark Lanegan has himself a merry little Christmas


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Mark Lanegan has made an album to satisfy the yuletide yearnings of those who find holly and hellfire equally enchanting. Even before his old band Screaming Trees hung it up in 2000, the singer-songwriter had begun his career as a serial collaborator—highlights over the past 20 years include his work with Queens of the Stone Age, his three albums with Belle & Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell, and his Gutter Twins project with Greg Dulli—but in 2012 he added to his equally impressive solo discography by self-releasing a six-track EP of holiday songs titled Dark Mark Does Christmas 2012. Available exclusively at his shows, the record has since become a sought-after rarity among his fans. This fall, Lanegan dusted off his holiday finery and resurrected the Dark Mark name to release this romp through a mix of Christmas standards, originals, and other fare—it includes all six tracks from the 2012 EP and four new cuts. Dark Mark Does Christmas 2020 kicks off with a take on “The Cherry Tree Carol,” a ballad that dates back at least to the 15th century and retells a Virgin Mary story borrowed from an apocryphal gospel. Lanegan shirks angelic trimmings, instead opting for a plucky banjo lead and a lilting, folksy atmosphere. On a standout version of the traditional “O Holy Night,” Lanegan clambers up the peaks of his vocal range, trading his trademark gravelly drawl for high-flying, Jeff Buckley-esque belting. The majority of the album uses sparse instrumentation, but on the songs he wrote, Lanegan indulges in collaboration and experimentation: Dulli lays down the acoustic-guitar bedrock of “A Christmas Song,” and the eerie “Death Drums Along the River” pits sleigh bells against electronic beats. Lanegan closes the album by swapping snowy cliches for sinister balladry on a cover of “Burn the Flames,” by 13th Floor Elevators founder and psych legend Roky Erickson. Scrubbing away the original’s acid-pocked indulgence, Lanegan delivers an uncanny message to the scrooges and scoundrels within all of us. The album stays true to Lanegan’s customary bleakness, which happens to speak especially well to the somber mood of a holiday season spent in pandemic-enforced isolation—maybe 2020 will also be remembered as the year Dark Mark saved Christmas.   v

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