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. Lanegan, conversely, was anything but twee, serving stints in Screaming Trees and later in Queens of the Stone Age.
So, when the two first got together for 2006’s Ballad of the Broken Seas, many assumed this was just another Svengali tale: the assertive, worldly male guiding the submissive, timid female. The duo, however, have forged what can by now — three albums into their collaboration — be considered a career by turning such gender expectations on their heads. Campbell has taken the lead on each of their three albums, serving as the main writer, producer, and arranger; while Lanegan has played the role of gun-for-hire, dependably solid in fulfilling his vocal duties.
On Campbell and Lanegan’s third album, Hawk, this subversion of outmoded gender roles lends the album a sexy tension. While it’s Lanegan’s incendiary growl that gives many of the tracks the abrasive grit they need to be believable, Campbell’s siren-like whispers both temper and buoy his vocals, coming in at the edges to gently nudge them back, then floating weightlessly underneath them.
On “Come Undone”, for example, Lanegan’s voice is so heavy and gruff that it sounds downright demonic. But rather than being smothered under the weight of her collaborator’s predatorial bark, Campbell sounds like the classic femme fatale — alluring, dangerous, and utterly confident. Over sweeping strings and shuffling piano, the pair scorch their way through sultry lines like, “I’m not scared of the dark / Though you tangle and tease me / Bite worse than your bark / You said you’d never leave me.” Yes, this is sexy stuff.
One reason why the tracks work as well as they do is that Campbell grounds them in classic American idioms, such as blues, folk, and country, stripping each form down to its raw elements. In doing so, she gives the songs room to swell and expand, until they eventually surround the listener. In that regard, the album hints at Neko Case or Mazzy Star — ethereal and atmospheric, yet rooted in traditional music forms.
Lest things get too airy, though, Campbell and Lanegan wisely mix in a few raucous numbers. The title track, in particular, is downright searing, a balls-out blues instrumental that starts out loud and grows even louder until it collapses in cacophony. “You Won’t Let Me Down Again” is another blues tune, this one more traditional in approach, though both tracks still possess the Lanois-esque atmospherics of the rest of the album.
As additional evidence of Campbell’s lead role in this duo, she brings in guest singer Willy Mason to cover Townes Van Zandt. Though Mason is but a kid at 26, his voice possesses the world-weary despair of Van Zandt, particularly in “No Place to Fall” when he delivers lines like “I’m not much of a lover, it’s true / I’m here and I’m gone and I’m forever blue.” There’s probably no other figure that epitomizes the glories and tragedies of American music more than Van Zandt, and Mason believably conjures up his spirit.
Of course, Campbell takes a few solo tracks here, and Hope Sandoval once again comes to mind. Indeed, “To Hell and Back Again” sounds like a lost Mazzy Star song, combining a hypnotically repeating chord progression with a gorgeously breathy vocal. Oh, to be sure, Campbell has come a long way from the girl who timidly sang backup in “The Boy with the Arab Strap”.
Yes, it’s fitting that Hawk comes out in August — the hottest month of the year in the States — for it’s one sultry collection of Americana. Hazy and humid, it hangs over and envelops like the summer air, leaving the listener languid and spellbound. True, Campbell may be from the cold and harsh clime of Glasgow, Scotland, but she sure knows how to take her audience through the hot and dusty collective unconscious of the American South. Hopefully she and Lanegan won’t cool down anytime soon.