It would have been tough to guess from Isobel Campbell’s six-year tenure delivering airy, sun-drenched ditties with Belle and Sebastian that she’d end up in a sustained partnership with Mark Lanegan. Part of rock’s gloomy, pre-grunge old guard, the former Screaming Trees frontman has been consistently, at times turgidly dark, and his work with Campbell is characteristic of that approach. Her vocal freshness has helped liberate him from this morass, though at times, particularly on tracks straining for atmospheric bleakness, they’ve both been pulled in by it. Their collaboration is therefore simple but also dangerous, a tug of war that often seems poised to turn into self-parody.
Hawk, their third album together, is still full of the musical dress-up that made 2008’s Sunday at Devil Dirt easy to listen to but hard to take seriously. While not entirely humorless, their habit of slipping into archetypal styles often makes them seem shiftless and phony. This effort, with its persistent, skittering movement from track to track, often sounds more like a jukebox than an album. This might be disastrous were it not done so professionally, with a crisp production and a serious devotion to the particulars of each style.
There’s also the vocal dynamic (his leathery and thick, hers sweet and transcendent), which provides another layer of distraction. Hawk, while just as derivative, is better than its predecessor for a variety of reasons, among them the energy imparted to the songs. That album had a tendency to dwell in darker places, with gothic blues and pitch-black Poe interpretations and shoddily applying Campbell’s voice as a salve for the material’s harshness.
Hawk wastes less time in these places, while adding jolting touches like a guitar and organ battle on “Get Behind Me,” recalling early-electric Dylan, and a squealing sax romp on the title track. The forceful, fiddle-driven warmth of “Eyes of Green” is contagious, and even cheeseball chamber-pop like “Come Undone” is paced well enough to not be a total drag. They may be, for all intents and purposes, covers of songs that never actually existed, but they repeatedly prove just how ecstatic such influence can be.