Friday, December 9, 2011
With a release date for Roses of February 14 (aww...), it's not surprising that there's already some artwork available, and even that it's also up on Wiki. What was surprising, to me, and the whole point of this post, because it's late and I'm tired, is that the album cover is very reminscent to me, because it's late and I'm tired, of the back cover photo of Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell.
And really, that's all I have to say about that.
Anyway, I was trading in quite a bit of stuff and took the cash, half of which I promptly turned around to make a few new purchases. I may go over some of those in the future, but right now I want to talk about the new Chris Isaak. Say what? Yeah, me either, but there it was, Beyond the Sun, about three selections back between two rather worn copies of Forever Blue. And since I’m an unapologetic Chris Isaak fan (really, does anyone need to apologize for that?), I made a quick glance to make sure it wasn’t some goofy best of and put it on the stack.
Never an overly prolific artist, the 00s and on have been pretty quiet for Isaak and new music. The borderline abysmal Always Got Tonight (that I’ll one day give another chance) and the even worse Christmas were enough to make me believe that he’d lost his songwriting gift. But 2009’s Mr. Lucky (which I’m listening to as I write this) was an absolute return to form, his strongest album since Forever Blue and as underrated as San Francisco Days. So, picking up Beyond the Sun was not a purchase of skeptical trepidation, but rather of pumped expectation.
However, when I gave the track list a better look, I realized this was a covers album (oh, brother…), and with a touch more delving, learned that it was a tribute to the artists of Sun Records – Presley, Cash, Orbison, Perkins and Lewis (though not all the songs are from that era). I guess the title should have given me a clue to that.
Like I said about She & Him in my previous post, Chris Isaak is in many ways a tribute rocker, nodding especially to Roy Orbison in “feel” over his nearly 30 year career, but arguably all of the aforementioned artists have their thumb in a slice of Isaak’s pie, and especially their Sun Records days. Likewise, he’s no stranger to covers, delivering a fiery rendition of Heart Full of Soul on his self titled sophomore album, a haunting Solitary Man to close out San Francisco Days and several low key ditties on his back to the basics Baja Sessions.
But an album of all covers? Well, I guess so. As I’ve lamented before, it’s a bit of a lazy move. Plus, Isaak wears his influences on his sleeve. There’s nothing diverse or left field here, like say a reworking of an old Germs tune, though it’s cool to hear Chris give his interpretation of some undisputed classics. The problem is that his interpretation isn’t really far from the original, well known versions, and with a couple of very minor exceptions, it’s almost as if Chris is doing a karaoke Rich Little impersonation set and not re-imagining these venerable relics for a new audience and century. (Karla actually thought it was Johnny Cash singing I Walk the Line, and it’s obvious why.)
In a way I certainly get that, because these songs are in many ways the gospel and unquestionably the blueprint of everywhere rock n roll music has gone over the past half a century. And as I’ve already said, these influences are all over his own songs, so really, what else is he gonna do?
Having said all of that, this really is a strong set of songs, some of the best in recorded music, and his band has never sounded better, and frankly neither has his voice. This in and of itself makes Beyond the Sun a worthwhile purchase. But when it’s all said and done, this album was probably more fun for them to make than for us to listen to, outside of a live setting anyway, and it’s ultimately enjoyable but unessential Chris Isaak. And that’s not a bad thing either.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
I’ve said something along these lines before, but if an artist sticks around long enough (especially a singer/songwriter type get up), a release of cover songs displaying the diversity of their influences is often inevitable, almost obligatory. Along the same lines and almost as inevigatory (yes, it’s a word now), is the Christmas album. Bah, humbug!
Chris Isaak had one a few years ago, and I hated it. Various other artists from Queen to Cocteau Twins have released one or two tracks here and there, and they’ve ranged from enjoyable to acceptable to awful to surprisingly good.
But I’m not here to dissect all of that (today at least). What I want to go over is the latest offering from that predictably enigmatic pairing of indie rock and indie film, stars in their own right, and yet still quite earthbound about it, She & Him.
To me, a Christmas album is a very tricky deal. There are two reasons for this:
First, without going into the very personal and often trite issues I’ve had with Christmas over the years, I will say that some of my all time favorite songs are Christmas songs. These are timeless, canonical classics like Oh Holy Night, I’ll Be Home for Christmas and the like. And part of me wants to say, “Well, a good song is a good song, and you can’t ruin that.” Yes, you can. Too much cheese, not enough cheese, indifference, irreverence, messing around too much with lyrics or melodies, all of this can kill a good Christmas song.
Second, writing your own Christmas song is usually a bomb. Lots of artists do it, and most fail in comparison with the classics. There are exceptions, and a notable one is the Pogues’ A Fairytale of New York (talk about irreverence), but for the most part these are weekend throwaways, something to toss onto a compilation for MTV or VH1 and forget it exists. And as long as the proceeds go to a good cause, no (real) harm done.
So, back to She & Him… Long time readers know of my ins and outs with this group, and that after seeing them perform live a year or so ago, I discovered a new respect for them, even if I keep them at arm’s length. Zooey’s new (girl) show has (eventually) done a lot to win especially her back into my warmer affections, but that’s as much to do with how she bounces off her co-cast as anything else. (Divorcing Ben Gibbard isn’t hurting either, but that’s tacky so I’m not going to mention it.)
Anyway, when I saw that they were releasing A Very She & Him Christmas, I sorta laughed and shrugged and rolled my eyes and said “That’s cool” all at the same time. The cynic in me will always initially say that a Christmas album is a cash in for folks like Celine Dion and Michael Buble type acts to just squeeze a few more dollars out of a demographic that can, well, probably afford it, but that isn’t the point. So of course I’m thinking, “What is a critically respected indie group on a madly respected indie label doing putting out a Christmas album?” Was this a joke? Was this a cash in? Was this a winky-wink nod to their roots? Well, maybe a bit of all of that, but per my “revelation” after seeing them perform, I want to think it’s mainly the latter.
As I said then, She & Him is a group that is more than retro, they’re almost a tribute act, vibing the bubblegum sounds of the 50s and 60s in a way that more plays the part than uses the elements in a new and unique sound (I’m not sure that made sense, but I’m not changing it). And a lot of those artists put out Christmas albums, so it’s only fitting, even logical, that She & Him do the same.
And with that all aside, listening to the album itself, well – if you’re a mad rabid fan of She & Him (like my 16yo niece and all her little friends), then you will eat up this reverb soaked affair like confection and wait for Volume 2 with spoon in hand. Otherwise, you’ll view this as a pleasant but unessential collection of classics from both yesterday and the other day to throw in with Elvis and Frank and Nat to change the pace a bit, but not really too much.
The song selection is superb, from the Christmas Waltz to the Christmas song; these are picks that set aside much of the holiness of the Holy Days and lean more on the rollickin’, festive, upbeat good times. Blue Christmas, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and two of Brian Wilson’s 60s offerings (Christmas Day and Little Saint Nick), close to becoming canonical classics themselves, do much to prove this point.
And when She & Him are a-rockin’ and a-rollickin’ is when this album is most believable and enjoyable, and the playful back and forth of Baby, It’s Cold Outside is certainly the album highlight. But more often than not, the low key, understated production of say just Zooey on ukulele or with M on guitar, means that a lot of this is rather samey, and sometimes her delivery is seemingly phoned in, almost indifferent.
Ultimately, these shortcomings are minimal and do little to distract from the overall enjoyment of this album, especially as a background listen, which is essentially what Christmas music is for in most settings. And while She & Him do pretty much keep with the standard renditions (mad props for “presents ON the tree”), those of you wishing to sing along may want to pull out some Johnny Mathis or Dean Martin for a ‘round the fire sing along.