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.
Three albums in, the combination still feels unlikely: the once-chirpy Scottish twee star hooking up with the gravelly, drugged-out ex-grunge guy to make warm, languid movie-soundtrack Americana. Nothing in that last sentence seems like it should work. But former Belle and Sebastian singer/cellist Isobel Campbell and former Screaming Trees frontman Lanegan have the sort of chemistry that nobody can fully explain.
Much has been made of the duo of Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, specifically in regards to their unlikely pairing. Campbell, of course, rose to indie fame in Belle and Sebastian, serving as the quiet and sexy foil to the studious and inquisitive Stuart Murdoch. Along with the rest of B&S, Campbell and Murdoch made twee indie gems before her 2002 departure, deftly blending reflective chamber folk with acutely articulate character sketches.
Well, that was nice while it lasted. Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have had a fling for a few years now, conceiving two gorgeous collections: 2006’s heart-haunting Ballad of the Broken Seas and the smoldering slice that was 2008’s Sunday at Devil Dirt. But with Hawk, it appears that their well of mutual romantic sorrow has run dry. Unlike their two previous efforts, which were affixed to bluesy folk, this one attempts to corral 13 songs that have virtually nothing to do with each other—musically, lyrically or otherwise.
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.
It’s a small mystery why 'Campbell & Lanegan' hasn’t yet become shorthand for a certain kind of Belle et la Bete pairing that explores the difference between two different vocal textures and – let’s be honest – exploits the fantasy of delicate young Bel being tempted by a grizzled old grunge-legend, and maybe have to tame him or show her own teeth. With the Serge Gainsbourg film in cinemas right now, it’s a timely reminder that’s pretty much what Isobel was thinking three albums ago, when they first hooked up. They’re both legitimate ends – rather than ways to paper over the cracks, or appeal to the listener’s shallowness – because some singers do get typecast, individually, and it’s idiotic to let yourself remain an acquired taste for the sake of pursuing your solitary vision.
Isobel Campbell made a smart move when she engaged Mark Lanegan as her singing partner in 2004. But listening to Hawk, their third album together, the thought occurs that she might make an even smarter move, by hiring another female vocalist as his foil. The pleasure of Campbell flitting like a will-o'-the-wisp in the cracks between Lanegan's fierce, parched growls is predictable now.
In a collaboration that began with the echoes of old Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood records, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have completed their third shared album, this one delving deeper into the Americana that Campbell has been exploring since her 2006 solo album, Milk White Sheets. However, where the first and second Campbell/Lanegan albums relished in the electric juxtaposition of two very different voices, things tend to go soft on Hawk. Campbell and Lanegan are still one of the most interesting and engaging vocal pairs in music, but here the duo sound positively hushed.
Now on their third full length collaborative effort, the once edgy combination of ex-Belle & Sebastian vocalist Isobel Campbell and Screaming Trees’ belter Mark Lanegan is beginning to feel as relaxed as a long time marriage. Those familiar with the duo’s previous collections of dark, sultry, occasionally ominous Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra styled folk/dust bowl ballad vocalizing won’t find much new or different here. Still, the now mature musical relationship pays dividends as the baritone crooning of Lanegan and Campbell’s breathy, Nico-inflected singing continue to deliver an atmospheric payoff.
A union that just keeps on giving delivers its best album yet. Andy Fyfe 2010 The most unlikely pairing in rock is now three albums old, and still it’s surprising that Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have very much in common at all, let alone the ability to inhabit the same songs. Yet for all the eyebrows raised by a country-folk partnership between the fragrant, whisper-voiced founding member and cellist of Belle and Sebastian and the former ‘exhaustion’-prone ex-junkie singer with Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age, it’s a union that just keeps on giving, with the steelier, more focussed Hawk the best they’ve given yet.