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Featured from left to right: Brittany Haas, Paul Kowert, Jordan Tice and Dominick Leslie. Photo by Dylan Ladds.

Review: “Formations” by acoustic band Hawktail displays multifaceted musicianship

Hawktail is a quartet composed of Brittany Haas on fiddle, Paul Kowert on bass, Jordan Tice on guitar and Dominick Leslie on mandolin. 

Leslie, who spoke with The Retriever over the phone, describes Hawktail’s sound as “progressive new acoustic music” inspired by traditions including bluegrass and Scandanavian fiddle music. Leslie is the newest member of the band, and contributed to the composition of their latest album, “Formations.”

Hawktail’s composition is “all about the instrumentation,” says Leslie, “and how those core instruments sound together.” A notable track on “Formations” demonstrating Hawktail’s exploration of instrumental roles is “Dandelion.” Harmonic dissonance and dynamic contrast contribute to the track’s unique sound that sets it apart as thoughtful and experimental. The use of space here is particularly effective, as the instruments are allowed to ring, showcasing the clarity of the sound.

“The Tobogganist” highlights Hawktail’s cohesion. Each instrument effectively presents and builds upon the main melody, which is written in the style of a schottische, a type of Swedish dance. The four voices work together to create an upbeat, earnest mood suitable for toe-tapping.

Haas is “the soaring singer” of Hawktail on her fiddle, according to Leslie. Her ability to carry and energize a melody is heard in “Annbjorg,” the first track on “Formations.” Haas introduces and reintroduces the bright main melody of the track in the first and final sections, pushing it forward and adding a rollicking feel. The power behind her performance is evident in the sections with thicker textures, as her melody still dominates.

Kowert, Hawktail’s bassist, is best at developing the melodies. In the track “Eddie’s Attic,” Kowert expands on the established melody in unexpected and intriguing ways. In the middle section of the track, first playing high in the bass’s range, he creates a soft timbre, then moves lower and adds darkness with minor chords and two lengthy downward runs.

Leslie remarks that Tice “has a really deep ear” and “an amazing sense of being able to tell what’s happening on stage.” In “Padiddle,” the penultimate track on “Formations,” Tice plays a critical and largely supporting role on guitar. His mellow timbre is the calm antithesis to the fiddle melody during the more intense penultimate section, and becomes the highlight of the track’s beginning and end as he strums cheerful major chords.

One of Hawktail’s goals for this album was to give the mandolin an equal voice to that of the other three instruments. Leslie on his mandolin is most featured in the track “Last One on the Line.” From the opening chord, he introduces a high-energy melody that celebrates and expands upon the crisp rhythmicity of the mandolin. 

The final track on “Formations” is a cover of “One Hour in Hungary” by Swedish band Vasen, who Leslie calls “one of [Hawktail’s] favorite bands.” Leslie recalls that he and his bandmates worked on this track late into the night, and were focusing too much on minute details, until their producer, Chris Eldridge, asked them to record once more all the way through. Once they just played for themselves, Leslie says, they were able to capture “the energy of a live performance,” and “the magic really happened.” That take is the one included in the album.

Hawktail continues their “Formations” tour through Aug. 13. The album is available through for purchase and streaming on multiple platforms.