Isobel Campbell / Mark Lanegan
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2010, Volume 17, #11
Written by John Metzger
Thu November 4, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT
Six years after the release of Ballad of the Broken Seas, the union of Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan continues to seem a little strange. The delicate, regalness of her voice just doesn’t seem as if it would mesh particularly well with the streetwise desolation that lurks inside his croon. Considering that they also assembled Ballad of the Broken Seas by working separately within their respective corners of the world rather than in the same studio, nothing about the project should have worked. Yet, their partnership proved to be remarkably inspired, even if the end result left some room for improvement.
Rewarded for the efforts with an abundance of positive praise, Lanegan and Campbell rekindled their relationship on Sunday at Devil Dirt. Almost by necessity, the album was designed to refine their formula rather than break their mold. At the same time, though, Lanegan and Campbell likely recognized that eventually the blueprint they were building would either have to be decorated differently or jettisoned completely. After all, part of the reason that their collaboration has been so successful is because it is so strikingly unique. Yet, without a doubt, a time inevitably would come when the novelty of the project would dissipate.
Sure enough, Lanegan and Campbell’s latest set Hawk conveys a different tone from its predecessors, even as it builds upon the strength of their union. Save for two inspired selections that were culled from Townes Van Zandt’s canon — Snake Song and No Place to Fall — all of the material on Hawk was penned, arranged, and produced, once again, by Campbell. Lanegan merely lends his voice to the affair, playing the role of a damaged man who is haunted by his past and uncertain of his place in the present.
Lanegan and Campbell’s partnership has always fared best whenever they have blended their voices, thereby using the public’s perception of their personas to shape the mood of their material. Not surprisingly, then, the two selections that Campbell tackled alone — Sunrise and To Hell & Back Again — serve as Hawk’s weakest links. To be fair, both songs are solidly performed: Sunrise sounds like an early Beatles tune that has been melted to reveal its heartbroken core, while To Hell & Back Again turns one of Neil Young’s folk melodies into a churning mantra. Yet, within the context of Hawk, they feel incomplete.
For the record, Lanegan also is absent on No Place to Fall and Cool Water. Nevertheless, he is replaced quite credibly by Willy Mason. As for the instrumental-only title track, its noisy squall of saxes and guitars essentially transforms Booker T. and the MG’s into a raging garage-rock outfit.
Campbell and Lanegan combine their talents on Hawk’s eight other tunes. Save for the hushed, moody atmosphere of We Die and See Beauty Reign, they apply their craft to material that explores a broader musical range than their previous endeavors. Much like Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Get Behind Me kicks up a lot of dust, while Van Zandt’s Snake Song feels like a lost collaboration between Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks. Elsewhere, whipped by the electric-guitar turbulence supplied by James Iha, You Won’t Let Me Down Again shifts from a plea to a threat, and although Lately is puffed up with gospel singers, its roots are anchored in the fertile terrain of The Band.
Hawk is helped, of course, by the facts that not only have Campbell’s melodies grown sharper, but also her arrangements have become more confident and forceful. Still, the collection would merely be an exercise, were it not for the astoundingly good chemistry between her and Lanegan. Repeatedly, they assume their roles quite convincingly, and the increased emotional complexity of the entire package — from the way Hawk was assembled to the details of its lyrics — lends greater depth to all of its material.
On Come Undone, for example, Lanegan and Campbell sing over a James Brown-influenced accompaniment. As he outlines his descent into darkness, she tries desperately to lure him back into the light. Yet, it also is quite probable that she was responsible for pushing him into the abyss in the first place, and hence is simply toying with him. This bit of role-reversal has become Campbell and Lanegan’s bread-and-butter. Just when it appeared as if their collaboration was nearing its end, however, the duo — under Campbell’s careful watch — opened themselves to fresh ideas and found new life in Hawk.
Of Further Interest...
Hawk is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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