Best known for his 1991 hit, “Wicked Game,” used in the creepy David Lynch film, “Wild At Heart,” Chris Isaak makes living through sad and tormented personal relationships sexy and hip. Don’t believe me? Check out his second best-known sort-of hit, “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing,” used in the trailer of another creepy film, Stanley Kubrick’s, “Eyes Wide Shut.” See what I mean? In Isaak’s Elvis Presley-fueled, early-rock world, heartbreak is a strangely familiar presence…and it’s also just kind of strange: always lurking in grim shadows down dark, murky motel hallways. Isaak’s mournful croon echoes Orbison perfectly, as his grumble is as simpatico as his falsetto.
But as cool as he is, picking any one Chris Isaak album to highlight for a “Must Hear” blog is a difficult and somewhat arbitrary task. I mean, while universally hailed by critics, Isaak’s albums are sometimes described as being interchangeable, with no one album standing out as a “new direction” or finding Isaak taking a on different approach or style. And that’s what I love about this rockabilly acolyte. With Isaak, there will likely never be an experimental period; there will never be a “Justin record;” there will only be straight-ahead, but suffering and romanticized rock-and-roll music. Even Isaak’s 2004 holiday offering, Christmas, doesn’t veer from this well-honed approach.
But it’s the ongoing artist – audience dilemma, isn’t it? The artist wants to grow and evolve, not getting mucked into routine or repeating themselves, and the audience wants to hear what they like, what’s familiar. And either perspective is completely defensible. Case in point for the artist’s side: Radiohead constantly evolves and reinvents its sound, pushing into new and uncharted sonic territory with each new release: and they do so exquisitely. Case in point for the fan’s side: Sade puts out essentially the same album every four to five years, adding a few sonic embellishments du jour, and the fans scramble back for more. Some artists adapt well with change (i.e., Paul Simon, Green Day, and Madonna, who has famously predicted the “next big thing” with startling accuracy), but some attempts to adapt with the changing musical tides quickly fall apart (e.g., Carpenters, Chicago, and the once great Stevie Wonder, who spiraled into synthesizer hell with early-80’s drivel like “Part-Time Lover” and “I Just Called To Say I Love You”).
But if Chris Isaak has one album that stands out among the excellent bunch, it’s his fresh and uncluttered Baja Sessions. Inspired by time in the beautiful, breezy, Baja, Mexico, the album highlights Isaak’s lighter musical side. What stands out about Baja Sessions is the laid-back approach that permeates this alluring effort. It’s as if he and the band are lounging in their beach chairs and hammocks, bare feet dangling over the side, playing their favorite bummed-out love songs, and somebody accidently pressed “record” on the reel-to-reel. In fact, Baja Sessions is one of the most relaxed albums I’ve ever heard, covering songs from his beloved pre-rock era and some of Isaac’s own songs, perfectly co-opted from previous albums.
The album’s opener, “Pretty Girls Don’t Cry,” is a whispered Orbison sound-alike, and sets the breezy pre-rock pace of the album. Two outstanding covers follow shortly after, Roy Orbison’s classic, “Only The Lonely,” and Gene Autry’s 1939 hit, “South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way),” which sounds like it was written with Isaak in mind. Baja Sessions also returns to stunning originals from Isaak’s previous albums, most notably, “Wrong To Love You,” from Heart Shaped World, and the lovely, “Two Hearts,” from San Francisco Days. The Baja versions are stripped down and chilled, and the fresh take on these familiar tunes offers a significantly original vision without watering down the songs’ vitality. Hearing Isaak cover his own material reminds me why he is such a resilient artist: he doesn’t rely on hits to deliver his work; he never has. Isaak focuses solely on creating enduring, classic pre-rock and roll that transcends trends and top 40 radio.