Unlikely duo loses its spark
Isobel Campbell (she of angelic voice and formerly Belle & Sebastian) and Mark Lanegan (he of rusty growl and formerly Screaming Trees) have made three albums of beautiful country-folk together, their voices co-existing like wine and whiskey. But while their first two collaborative efforts were largely slow, quiet affairs, their new album Hawk is more dynamic, featuring both whispered ballads and dusty, boot-stomping rockers, and not always for the best.
Lanegan’s powerful, devil’s-grin vocals predominate here, while Campbell’s ghostly coos haunt the shadows. (She wrote and produced all of the album’s tracks, minus two Townes Van Zandt covers, and this behind-the-scenes role seems to suit her.) No track here is as gorgeous as the mournful Black Mountain, from 2006’s The Ballad of the Broken Seas, but “To Hell & Back Again,” a rare Campbell solo tune, lilts and twirls like an enchanting (but less sexy) version of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” Lanegan’s baritone perfectly scrapes the cracked-earth blues of “You Won’t Let Me Down Again,” while “Get Behind Me” could be a long-lost, boozed-up Johnny and June duet.
Still, this once-compelling pairing is beginning to feel depleted, perhaps never so much as on Hawk’s best track, the Van Zandt cover “No Place to Fall,” which forgets Lanegan altogether. Willy Mason, a young folkie whose voice sounds at least 25 years older than it is, triumphs on the song, a subtly devastating waltz backed by a spare acoustic guitar, old-time violin solo and Campbell’s barely-there vocals. “Time, she is a fast old train / She’s here and she’s gone and she won’t come again,” he sings, and it’s not hard to believe the same might be true for this once-magical coupling.