Album: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, Hawk (V2 / Co-Operative)

He growls, she coos: alt-rock's oddest couple strike again
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The Independent Culture

On the face of it, Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan hail from opposite ends of the alt-rock spectrum, the former having made her name with the twee indie-folk of Belle & Sebastian, the latter with the hoary, hairy grunge of Screaming Trees.

You wouldn't expect the woman who sang "Lazy Line Painter Jane" and the man who growled "Nearly Lost You" to have much in common. And yet, Hawk is their third collaborative album, so something about this Scottish-American partnership must work for the respective parties.

The template, of course, is the male-female tradition established by Nancy & Lee, Serge & Brigitte, even Cave & Kylie. The balance of power, however, is skewed one way. Just as he was outshone in the Soulsavers project by the brilliance of Greg Dulli, here Lanegan exists mainly to provide a gritty, grainy foundation for Campbell's sugary coos and whispers. Perhaps Lanegan is music's Emile Heskey: in the same way that other strikers insist that Heskey brings out the best in their game, to the bafflement of spectators, perhaps Lanegan somehow complements and cultivates whatever is latently great in whoever he is working with.

That said, his open-hearted vocals on "No Place to Fall" reverse those roles, with Campbell merely providing pretty-but-superfluous window-dressing, and Lanegan's Dylanesque drawl on the gospel-flavoured "Lately" would have the Dude in The Big Lebowski nodding with approval.

The duo are not above cliché – "Sunrise" features a hackneyed "whisper in my ear/ words I long to hear" rhyme – but they concoct a certain chemistry of which "To Hell and Back Again" is probably the loveliest moment. Their favoured genre is dusty desert blues, all twangs, echoes and bottleneck bends, but despite the aura of Americana, the reference points are often British: Lanegan sings of travelling to "King's Cross to explain the situation" on "Time of the Season" in a song that, sadly, isn't a cover of the Zombies' bewitching classic.

There's also brassy blues and soul: "Come Undone" is so blatantly based on "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" that if James Brown doesn't get a credit, they're lucky he's not around to demand payback.