REVIEW: Hawktail’s “Formations” is Elite Pickers Vocal-Free Adventurism


Hawktail is comprised of a group of American roots music elite pickers: Brittany Haas on violin, Paul Kowert on bass, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, and Jordan Tice on guitar. On Formations, the group’s debut on Padiddle Records, Hawktail immediately set themselves apart from their contemporaries with a mix of vocal-free bluegrass that is not afraid to embrace either the classical roots in string quartets or the undercurrents of jazz and vistas of experimentation alive in all instrumental music. This collection of tunes immediately brings to mind the adventurism of Edgar Meyer on display on Uncommon Ritual, Short Trip Home, and others, as well as his revolving cast of ace players: Mike Marshall, Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, Joshua Bell, etc.

“Annbjorg” opens Formations with the expectant engaging energy of an opening track as bass and violin climb and fall to the steady chunk of mandolin and guitar. From mountain tops to dark valleys below, “Annbjorg” doesn’t shy away from dynamic terrain. A complete breakdown to near silence, followed by a bass solo and a build back from wandering in the shadows, brings “Annbjorg” back to its opening theme. “Last One on the Line” lets the mandolin take the lead and leans into more traditional bluegrass arrangement where each player takes turns in the driver’s seat while “Dandelion” guitar intro is reminiscent of the Beatles “Yesterday” with its finger picked simple beauty. Dynamic counterpoints creep into “Dandelion” via bowed bass and answering violin as guitar maintains its steady progression and the slow steady chunk mandolin plays its role as sparse snare. Eventually, “Dandelion” fractals into emotive roving before reemerging as an anxious romp. “Eddie’s Attic” bristles with backwoods country cabin fire; the track is practically begging for a John Anderson vocal line. “One Hour in Hungry” closes this collection on a note that evokes the movement of travel and the transient nature of place and time with an ear towards celebration rather than dissolution.

Hawktail’s Formations was produced by the band and Chris Eldridge, recorded by Dave Sinko at Southern Ground in Nashville, mixed by Jacquire King, and mastered by Pete Lyman at Infrasonic Sound. Beyond the engaging instrumentation on display for the superficial listener, there is plenty of arrangement tricks hidden within these tracks to entice closer inspection from music scholars as well. As violinist Hass notes regarding the arrangement of “Eddie’s Attic”: “we combine people on the same part in different ways. Unison, octave, together or staggered. Each instrument is like a character, and as they enter and exit, the scenes change.” There’s more than initially meets the ear on Hawktail’s Formations; pick up a copy and let your ears explore these imagined instrumental worlds.

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