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Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan

Hawk

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Label: Vanguard

And to think, there was a time when Mark Lanegan’s fans fretted for the man’s reclusive nature. Following the dissolution of Screaming Trees in the mid-’90s, the golden tones of Lanegan’s nicotine-seasoned pipes – like catnip to his listeners – were in short supply; there was 1998’s Scraps at Midnight, as well as the following year’s all-covers I’ll Take Care of You, but his live performances were few and far between, so each newly-released song was held onto tightly. In 2010, Lanegan-lovers are spoiled rotten; after his frequent work with Queens of the Stone Age, his music with ex-Afghan Whig Greg Dulli in the Twilight Singers, collaborations with French electronic duo Soulsavers and, of course, songs recorded as part of Gen X’s own version of the Nancy & Lee combo, in his partnership with former Belle & Sebastian cellist, Isobel Campbell.

On their third record (and first for Vanguard), Hawk once again finds Campbell writing a collection of mostly subdued songs steeped in both Americana and old English folk music, complementing the duo themselves and their formula for past success. And make no mistake – this is a formula; at their best, the combination of Campbell’s sweet, cherubic whispers and Lanegan’s heavy, Mephistophelean grumbles is like kettle corn – sweet, salty and as Hawk evinces, pretty easy to consume way too much of.

Perhaps because of just how far apart the poles of these singers’ styles are, their best work relies upon those differences played to the hilt. Their re-imagining of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” and the strange lyrical territory of “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk With Me?,” both from ’06’s Ballad of the Broken Seas, made the most of the disparity between the roles the voices easily settled into playing, just as ’08’s Sunday at Devil Dirt had the sultry “Come On Over (Turn Me On)” and the heartbreaking, Eeyore-finds-love song, “Something to Believe.” For these songs to work, there had to be an element of Campbell and Lanegan putting listeners on; Hawk is much more straightforward in its approach, which hurts it in the long run.

Opening with “We Die and See Beauty Reign,” the album already seems mawkish, and “You Won’t Let Me Down Again” sounds like the kind of Adult Contemporary-Americana that I imagine was on that Robert Plant-Alison Krauss album. “Snake Song” gets on the right track, Lanegan sounding requisitely spooky; the duo step it up on “Come Undone,” a slow-burning number about unfulfilled longing set to a kind of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” march. Immediately derailing the record is the following Townes Van Zandt cover, “No Place to Fall,” with its male vocal performance by Willy Mason. Though possessing a fine voice himself, his sudden inclusion destroys some of that suspension-of-disbelief movie magic that Campbell/Lanegan depends on, making for a baffling stylistic choice.

Adding insult to injury, Hawk picks up again, as though it’s shaking off a bad dream, with “Get Behind Me,” a rollicking jook joint number that, along with the instrumental title track, sounds like the most fun or inspiration anyone had making the album. “Time of the Season” is a strange latter-day addition to the Christmas songbook, though I’ll take it. After the Mazzy Star-covering-Neil Young dirge of “To Hell & Back Again,” Campbell loses herself in a lot of acoustic atmospherics and breathy ballads, while there’s another disjointed appearance by Mason. Closing tune “Lately” pairs poor ol’ Lanegan with some female backing vocalists you’d expect to find on an ’80s-era Clapton record. Sheesh.

Even above Hawk relying entirely too much on the middle of the road, the record’s most troubling aspect is that Lanegan’s presence on the tracks – once an irresistible seasoning guaranteed to give a tune instant gravitas – transforms none of these songs into anything special. You can’t help but shake the feeling that anyone else at all singing these songs would achieve the same reaction, albeit with less of a sense of disappointment.

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