Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Hawk by Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan (Album Review 2010)

Hawk is the third collaborative album from ex-Belle & Sebastian cellist/pianist Isobel Campbell and ex-Screaming Trees front man Mark Lanegan. During a turbulent life, both musically and personally, including five years with Queens Of The Stone Age, Lanegan has made six solo albums. The last and best of these is the wonderful Bubblegum, released in 2004 and coinciding with the start of this, the fourth chapter of his career. Where Bubblegum is Lanegan's finest hour as an individual (albeit with help), the trio of albums combining his exquisite baritone rasp and the delicacy of Campbell's celestial tones outclasses most of the material produced with John Homme and Mark Pickerel. Like the two albums before, Campbell brings out the best of her musical spouse with her songs, each the perfect muse, in what is another brilliant collection.

Hawk opens with the excellent We Die And See Beauty Reign, a dark folk duet with a simple guitar loop forming the third vocal. Lanegan adds bass and depth to the lightness of Campbell in what is a great introduction to the album. You Won't Let Me Down Again could not be more different. Lanegan is in control of this heavier bluesy stomp but within is an incredible breathy vocal from Campbell, like a cool wind blowing through a harsh unforgiving desert. Complete with a central guitar solo and an excellent addition of Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha, the menacing lament continues and if anything is way too short. Snake Song is the first of two songs written by veteran American country musician Townes Van Zandt (both songs are taken from Zandt's album Flyin' Shoes) and given a modern take. Slightly faster than the original, Lanegan and Campbell give Zandt a lot of respect vocally – not imitating but always on the same course. Likewise the whole arrangement retains the core guitar work but drops the obvious rattlesnake percussion. Wonderful.

Come Undone again changes the mood and is more jazz-induced easy listening than country. As sultry as it is spiky, Lanegan's rough words unfold like gravel over the smooth Campbell delivery to create a unique mesmerising fusion. All this framed with a superb string arrangement. No Place To Fall – the second Townes Van Zandt song is a bit out of place thanks to a guest spot from Willy Mason. More delicious backing vocals from Campbell but the whole thing does not feel right with a different vocal mix. No doubt though it is an excellent love song given a new life. Completing a trio of sings that prove how diverse and interesting a record Hawk is, Get Behind Me is honky-tonk rock n roll. A bit cheesy but the sheer brilliance of the guitar-work shines through – especially the jolly instrumental finale. Vocally Lanegan is dominating but Campbell adds the sleek shine.

Time Of The Season is another gem. Like the opener, roles are reversed and Campbell leads the vocals in what is revealed to be a Winter love song: 'In your embrace I found my place...outside it's freezing'. The duo recall a cold meeting in London, name dropping Kings Cross, then off to Zanzibar and Amsterdam, weaving wonderful lyrics into the story as they go. The title track throws the album right back into turmoil and a truly unexpected move: a two and half minute squealing guitar, brass and drums blues instrumental. The ending is a complete hapless, fantastic shambles.

The first of two songs that feature only Campbell's vocals is the breathy Sunrise. This adds a deeply personal touch to a tale of longing and loss. 'Too much pain, too much pressure. And why must I have to wait so long', she sings, adding 'For the one that I treasure; tomorrow that's when I'll be gone'. To Hell and Back Again has a just a touch of Mazzy Star with Campbell doing a very passable impression of Hope Sandoval. The dense sultry production mixing sharp guitars, echoing percussion and the distant whimsical vocals is an irresistible combination.

Into the final trio, Cool Water is the second guest vocal from Willy Mason with very little production, gimmicks or tricks. This sounds like it was recorded in the back of a tour bus or a motel room at the end of a long day and there is a real honest connection between the two singers. 'Lovers swim; jump right in. You're my favourite clown. On demand; my right hand. And we're chained and bound. Feels so good; like it should. Let me bring you round...'. It's such a shame that this intimacy isn't shared with Lanegan. Eyes Of Green is a short blast of unashamed folk formed from a short introduction and a neat kitchen-sink solo. But to finish, Lately is an excellent Dylan-esque ending, with Lanegan on solo duty for the first and only time – albeit with female gospel choir for the choruses. More excellent song writing and observations from Campbell: 'It will come clean in the wash, no that much is true. You cannot foresee this would happen to you. Best to sit and wait until the sun's breaking through...'. This is a soundtrack to Lanegan's life with lines like 'You can wish your whole life through; be a sleepy John. Choose your favourite poison on your way to get gone. If it's what you're thinking then I got to move on...'. Campbell gives Lanegan the final poignant words.

With few exceptions, Lanegan and Campbell sing Hawk as a duo and instead of letting one voice dominate one song they form a single dual vocal, one voice creating two distinct sounds. The compliment is beguiling and wonderful – add in the dependable guitar work of Jim McCulloch and one great turn from Willy Mason and it is the perfect combination. Hawk rarely falters and has enough controlled twists and turns to keep momentum and ideas flowing. The raging seas of a man with a past are continually calmed and his spirit and inner demons consistently provide and promote her inspiration. She makes him happy and he gives her purpose. Long may it continue.

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