TAS Rated 5/5 Music, 4/5 Sonics in the May/June 2020 Issue of The Absolute Sound!
Known collectively as Hawktail, fiddler Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Jordan Tice, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie have combined their monstrous compositional and instrumental forces once again for a much-anticipated sophomore album, Formations. Flush with orchestral sweeps and sparse vigils, with strains of the American South and the North Atlantic, this cosmopolitan sound is not what you'd expect from a string band. Released just over a year after their debut LP, Formations illustrates the telepathic lucidity that an additional year of performing and creating has provided this ensemble. Formations took only two months to write and four days to record, a far cry from the 3-year process of their debut album, Unless.
Over those four days at Nashville's Southern Ground Studios, co-producer Chris "Critter" Eldridge - Kowert's Punch Brothers bandmate - joined up with veteran engineer Dave Sinko (Edgar Meyer, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush) and legendary mixing guru Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Shania Twain) to create a cohesive vision; a bigger picture shared by the entire band and production team. "We're so happy with what he did to it - in some cases, it was like hearing the true nature of the piece for the first time," says Kowert.
And the "true nature of the piece" shines brightly upon Formation's first single and opening track, "Annbjørg". "Annbjørg" is a dizzying, Scandinavian-tinged choose-your-own-adventure tune. Listeners might decide to get lost in the whirlwind of fiddle and bass interplay or focus on the impeccable, time-keeping groove of the guitar and mandolin - collectively though, the song echoes a thread which runs through the entirety of Formations; a familiar nostalgia with more than enough musical depth to satisfy even the most discerning ears. Folk Alley's Kelly McCartney commented, "We simply haven't seen these instruments played this way and with this exuberance... except by Hawktail."
With Formations, it's become clear that Hawktail are quite capable of blazing away at their own trail, successfully challenging the traditional roles of their respective instruments and genres.
'Dandelion' stands out as the group's most challenging and rewarding composition to date. It relies more on the chamber music influences heard on prior Hawktail album Unless than any other song on Formations, yet its finger-picking accompaniment and mesmerizing fiddle parts turn a slightly familiar formula into something completely new.
Do not let Formations, the under-the-radar gem from Hawktail, fly by unnoticed. Fully instrumental, the band's seven-track, 36-minute sophomore LP finds the quartet playing a beguiling mix of classical-leaning, bluegrass-infused, folksy, yet slightly esoteric, Celtic-cum-Americana music that defies simpler categorization. Disparate has rarely sounded so coherent.
With each of the six originals on the record (and, of course, the Väsen cover, too) Hawktail are, as always, daringly inventive. But on Formations they're distinctly proud to be catchy as well, flirting playfully with pop while still constantly reinforcing the deep roots of their collective pedigrees in fiddle music, old-time, bluegrass, and plain ol' pickin'. An overarching impossible combination coloring the entire collection of tunes must be this: That something so timeless is also remarkably contemporary.
At times, Formations presents the character of British folk music and the history that comes with it. At others, it sounds like something out of Northern Europe. At all times, though, it's the music of 2020s Nashville, a confluence of forms and traditions from across the U.S. and beyond the seas.
- Vinyl LP
- RIYL: Punch Brothers, Väsen, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Bruce Molsky, John Hartford
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