Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Sometimes adding a fourth member to an existing trio makes a huge difference. It sure worked for Crosby, Stills and Nash … not so much for Spinal Tap. But when the Nashville-based organic threesome of acoustic instrumentalists Brittany Haas (fiddle, guitar), Paul Kowert (bass) and Jordan Tice (guitar) felt something was missing in rehearsals for a sophomore album after their self-titled (Haas Kowert Tice) 2014 release, bringing in another musician seemed a logical move.
Mandolinist Dominick Leslie was that missing ingredient; so much that the trio renamed themselves Hawktail instead of just tacking on his name as an ampersand to the original triad. The outfit remains all instrumental which means the listener’s attention is entirely focused on musicianship. No problems there. Leslie’s mandolin infuses a fuller sound to the accomplished threesome, even though the approach remains sparse and intermittently atmospheric. The synergy among the quartet is remarkable in its seemingly effortless ability to shift musical gears between folk, country, jazz, Celtic and classical, all underpinned with subtle and sometimes flagrant bluegrass influences, frequently mixing genres into single tracks.
The nine cuts on this debut under the Hawktail moniker were recorded mostly live — some with an audience, some without — with few obvious overdubs. Punch Brother Chris Eldridge makes a logical producer as he keeps the vibe loose and open. From the hoedown, foot-tapping fiddle that introduces the new band on the opening “Abbzug” which increases tempo over its three-and-a-half minute length, to the somber bowed bass of the following ballad “In the Kitchen,” Hawktail covers a lot of territory. The often complex melodies take a few spins to kick in, but the playing is so tasteful, sympathetic and beautifully nuanced that roots music fans will have no issues sticking with these vocal-free tracks.
Unlike much bluegrass, the foursome restrain themselves from veering towards more-notes-per-second shredding in deference to creating intricate and — in selections such as “Horpe’s Reel,” the beautiful closer “Frog and Toad” and the title track — intimate pieces that float and hover rather than sting. Conversely, “Boatwoman” shifts from placid to almost avant-garde with instruments frantically pounding over its nearly six-minute runtime. Guitarist Tice reveals his inner Leo Kottke on the sophisticated “Randy” and fiddler Haas struts her stuff on the peppy “El Camino Pt. 2.”
Any ensemble that bravely forfeits vocals — and there aren’t many — has to rely on creative arrangements and captivating performances to score with audiences. Hawktail easily checks those boxes, as the cheering on the live tracks testifies to, for the audacious and beautifully conceived Unless.