Last week, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan released their third full-length collaboration, Hawk.
Campbell is a Scottish artist who was a founding member of Belle & Sebastian through 2002. Her singing and songwriting, upon which all of these collaborations are built, haunts in the way that a good book or a Hitchcock movie would; Understated, handling even the most harrowing scenes with a gentle touch, the brunt of the impact comes from between the lines, from your own imagination and personal relations.
On paper, this would be an encouraging summary of Campbell’s steady and feather-light vocals, but it wouldn’t say anything of the sustained impact (or lack thereof) over the course of a long performance or album. This is where Mark Lanegan comes in, a Rooster Cogburn to Campbell’s Mattie Ross.
Hawk opens with We Die And See Beauty Reign, opening with the titular line. The quietest song on the album, it’s as if Lanegan and Campbell are trying to under-do each other, singing together throughout over a few simple finger-picked chords and a gentle cello humming. It’s sparse, yet poignant and thus doesn’t feel like an intro until the album launches into You Won’t Let Me Down Again, a timeless ballad just begging to hold together your next mixtape / indie movie.
Hawk contains two Townes Van Zandt covers; Snake Song and No Place To Fall, both from Van Zandt’s 1978 album Flyin’ Shoes. The fact that these versions are so faithful to the originals is surprising not because it wasn’t expectable, but because they fit in so well despite it; They remind us just how great Van Zandt was to have recorded country songs that would still hold up through the progression of the genre over more than 30 years. The latter features vocals by Willy Mason, who also sings on Cool Water (not a Hank Williams cover).
While the album’s overall tone is consistently blue, it genre-hops a tiny bit more than the duo’s other two. Aside from the Van Zandt covers, detours include the honky-tonk blazer Get Behind Me, the screaming desert-punk-swing title track, and the flowery, uplifting Time Of The Season.
Come Undone is a slower, yet otherwise perfect recreation of James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World, with different lyrics. Perhaps there’s a hidden message here; It may be a man’s world, but a good woman can undo any man like a loose shoelace. This realization and the speculation it inspires lay at the heart of Hawk’s effectiveness as, among other things, a blues album; It constantly weighs power against vulnerability, and hope against despair.
Campbell and Lanegan’s forces are perfectly complementary, and the sum is simultaneously innocent and guilty, shy and fearless, a mourning young widow walking out of the desert, shovel in hand. Objectively, Hawk is an adept, yet humble artistic expression of emotional torrents. And subjectively, it’s just cool as shit.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.