Friday, December 9, 2011

New Old Music Review

So yesterday I took my mom to McKay Used Books, CDs, Movies and More. I was there for the CDs. She was there because I was her ride.

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.

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