Isobel Campbell / Mark Lanegan

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Hawk Review

by Mark Deming

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan seemed like an unlikely musical couple when they first began collaborating in 2006 -- she of the breathy whisper, he of the deep, bluesy rasp. But their intriguing blend of bitter and sweet has turned into viable ongoing partnership, and on their third album together, Hawk, Campbell and Lanegan continue to merge their distinct but complimentary styles while adding a few new edges to their approach. While Lanegan didn't write any material for this album, someone got the fine idea of persuading him to dip into the Townes Van Zandt songbook; his voice was tailor made for the grim undercurrents of "Snake Song." "Come Undone," meanwhile, plays out over a taut R&B-flavored backing track with strings and a relentless single-note piano mirroring the tension of the lyrics, while "You Won't Let Me Down Again" winds out its dark, atmospheric melody with a dose of slashing guitar courtesy of James Iha. "Get Behind Me" is a rollicking dose of honky tonk fire, and "Lately" closes out the set with some passionate country gospel pleading. But the biggest surprise is the title track, a righteous blast of sax-driven blues that stomps and swaggers to hard that there's no room for vocals, and if it seems like an odd choice for an album from a pair of singers, it's wild and tough enough that no one is likely to mind. Much of the rest of the album follows the template of Campbell and Lanegan's first two albums, but if it's heavy on echoing atmospherics and open spaces, there's no arguing that Campbell (as producer and primary songwriter) knows how to make this stuff work, and her duets with Lanegan sound only more confident and intuitive with time. Ballad of the Broken Seas was a surprise because two seemingly mismatched artists proved to be a splendid collaboration; four years later, Hawk isn't as startling, but it's encouraging to know that the magic between Campbell and Lanegan not only hasn't worn off, it's manifesting itself in new and compelling ways.

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