This Time of the Season

Since the very first time I heard them, I have believed that Belle & Sebastian are one of the most overrated bands of all time. Cutesy, self-amused bullshit. So I admit that I had some trepidation back in 2006, when I discovered that an ex-Belle & Sebastian member, Isobel Campbell, was teaming up with Mark Lanegan (the voice of the Screaming Trees, a sometime Queen of the Stone Age and occasional Soulsaver) for an album called Ballad of the Broken Seas. To my surprise, the album was great and the Campbell/Lanegan partnership has become a reliable source of excellent country/murder-folk/indie music (I make the distinction between “regular folk” and “murder-folk” because I believe that there should be a hint of darkness in really good folk songs and not all folk artists share this belief. Not every murder-folk song has to literally be about murder, but it should have just the slightest hint of despair to it – not too much though, because then there is a risk of the song becoming emo, in which case it has to be shot with a silver bullet). What’s more, Campbell has proven to be quite adept at paying homage to American folk/country/roots music without butchering it – the Brits have a mixed track record in this department, largely because of Elvis Costello, who set the bar really high with King of America but then turned around, knocked the fucking thing over, and broke it in half with Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane.

I lived in Boston when Ballad of the Broken Seas came out and it was the perfect accompaniment to the dark, cold winters in that city (it’s a great place to listen to murder-folk). For Campbell and Lanegan’s subsequent releases, 2008’s Sunday at Devil Dirt and this year’s Hawk, I have lived in Los Angeles, where it is almost always sunny and almost always at least seventy degrees (bad place for murder-folk, too. People out here don’t wanna know from folk songs unless someones sings ’em on Glee. I cant’ say with any certainty whether someone has or has not sung a folk song on Glee because that show is Auto-Tuned up to the eyeballs and is thus spiritually abhorrent to me). Sounds like paradise to a lot of people, I know, but it creates a certain amount of frustration for yours truly. So I’ve had a hard time listening to Hawk this year, even though I’ve had it for months. But now, the clouds have come to visit the so-called City of Angels and rain is in the forecast for possibly the next week. Now, at last, I can get down to business with this record.

Turns out Hawk might be the best offering yet from Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan. There’s some newfound country and rockabilly stomp to break up the brooding, murder-folk ballads that have populated their past efforts. There’s still plenty of darkness on Hawk – the Lanegan-led “You Won’t Let Me Down Again” is basically a threat and Campbell’s “To Hell and Back Again” and “Sunrise” are beautiful but deeply depressing, just the way I want them to be. I get the sense listening to this album that Campbell and Lanegan are just starting to find their feet in this musical partnership,which should mean that their best stuff is yet to come.

I’ve always had a thing for bands that feature both male and female voices (I’ve remarked on that plenty of times in this space) and Campbell and Lanegan’s voices compliment each other perfectly. An entire album of Isobel Campbell’s wispy whisper would probably get old, but Lanegan’s baritone growl (I’ve probably also said this before, but it bears repeating: Mark Lanegan is one of the most underrated vocalists in the history of rock ‘n’ roll) lends weight to the proceedings. They don’t necessarily harmonize on the scale of, say, the Living Sisters, but they’re also not trying to be as cute. The best Campbell/Lanegan tunes, like all great murder-folk songs, reek of sex and death, even if they’re singing about taking a walk in a garden.

The other new wrinkle in the old Campbell/Lanegan dynamic is a dude named Willy Mason, who appears on the Townes Van Zandt cover “No Place to Fall” and the Campbell original “Cool Water.” Both songs are down-tempo, pretty tunes. One might be tempted to surmise that Mason was brought in to handle the pretty stuff for which Mark Lanegan is too menacing, but I would caution against that conclusion – Lanegan has been downright charming in the past, never more so than on “(Do You Wanna) Come Walk with Me?” from Ballad of the Broken Seas. Anyway, Mason performs his part admirably and the two Townes Van Zandt covers that appear on Hawk (the other being “Snake Song”) have awakened in me a desire to listen to Van Zandt; plenty of musicians for whom I have profound respect seem to dig his music and it’s high time I saw what the fuss is all about. Just scanning the dude’s Wikipedia bio is pretty entertaining.

Since Christmas is almost upon us, I guess I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Time of the Season,” one of Hawk‘s many highlights. The tune perfectly captures the bittersweetness of a holiday season full of romantic turmoil. Winter is a helluva bad time to be lonely, even in stupid-sunny Los Angeles, and it’s nice to hear a song that captures that with some dignity instead of just bitching about it. The line, “We all do what we have to do/ at this time of the season” sums it up pretty nicely, I think.

So if you’re lucky enough to need a fire by which to warm yourself during this holiday season, why not consider a nice bottle of red wine (there’s a fine and affordable Pinot Noir from Oregon called Firesteed. They are not paying me to endorse their product, but if they read this and wanna ship a free bottle or two, I could probably mention them more in the future) and a spin through Hawk? Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan might not melt the ice on your gutters, but they can maybe do something for that chill in your heart (although that “something” may be “turn your thoughts to murder” but your mileage may vary).

So now that I’ve reached the end of my review of Hawk, I’d like to mention a word that is used too often in reference to Isobel Campbell. I have intentionally eschewed the use of that word in this review because I don’t want to give people the impression that Campbell, a very talented musician, is one-dimensional. The word I’m talking about, of course, is “sultry.” It’s not that it’s a bad word for the way Campbell sings (sometimes) but literally every review I’ve read of a Campbell/Lanegan album has worn the word into the ground and rendered it meaningless. Now it reads like shorthand for, “I have nothing new or creative to say about Isobel Campbell so I’ll just call her ‘sultry’ and take an early lunch.” So I am pledging to never use that word to describe Campbell’s singing ever again and I am also calling on all other music critics, professional and amateur alike, to do the same.

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