Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan’s third outing, Hawk, features 48 agreeable minutes of sultry, sexy, bluesy folk rock. It doesn’t, however, feature much that hasn’t been explored in their two previous releases. Hawk is no breakout or breakthrough, but those who enjoyed listening to (or possibly making out to) those older discs will find plenty to smile about.
Campbell and Lanegan are products of different musical worlds, and their collaboration has always been an unlikely one. As the 2000s were dawning, Lanegan and his band, grunge mainstays Screaming Trees, were headed back to the studio with dwindling enthusiasm on their way to a depressing and long-anticipated breakup. Meanwhile, Campbell was a cellist and timid wisp of a voice behind Stuart Murdoch in her band at the moment: a little outfit called Belle & Sebastian, icon of twee millennial indiedom. Even the most precocious of indie kids probably didn’t see this transatlantic combination coming.
But combine they did, beginning in 2006 with Ballad of the Broken Seas, and with the release of Hawk they now have a respectably sizable three-volume discography on the shelf. It’s obvious that both of them carry a lot of love for this collaboration, and the fact that there isn’t a whole lot to distinguish Hawk from previous Campbell & Lanegan discs only matters if you were hoping for something new.
The standout track here is ‘Time of the Season’. Close your eyes and imagine Lanegan singing his part an octave higher with a Glaswegian lisp; Campbell’s songwriting clearly owes plenty to her years with Belle & Sebastian, which in this context is quite a blessing. This track features much of what makes the best B&S songs work – snappy lyrics, understated catchiness, an ambiguously ironic string section – while never abandoning the atmosphere of decadent Americana that envelops all of Hawk.
Another conspicuous track is one of two Townes Van Zandt covers, ‘No Place to Fall’, sung for unclear reasons by folk music’s man of the moment, fresh-faced New England export Willy Mason. It feels a bit strange to give such a prominent spot to a guest artist when your act is built around evoking chemistry between two strong personalities – Robert Plant and Alison Krauss didn’t hand over a track on Raising Sand to, say, Joe Pug – but Mason does a great job interpreting Van Zandt, so it’s nice that his version got recorded, for whatever reason.
I should also mention ‘Come Undone’, the lead single off Hawk, an indulgent piece of Delta blues revival that’s hard to dislike.
The missteps on the album come mainly with the musical dial turned too far Lanegan’s way. ‘Get Behind Me’, ‘Hawk’, and ‘You Won’t Let Me Down Again’ are distorted rock outs making major concession to Lanegan’s days as a contributor to Queens of the Stone Age. They’re the only real departures from the calmer sound of the last two discs, and they’re not particularly interesting, though neither are they as jarring as you might expect.
After three trips through the cycle, Campbell and Lanegan have a formula that works, but it might start to feel played out if they continue playing by it in the future. Maybe next time they can bring in Willy Mason full-time to add some spice to their musical relationship.