A Crooner Goes Light

Chris Isaak
Baja Sessions (Reprise)

by Tim Roberts

The mournful two-note introduction to Chris Isaak's 1991 "Wicked Game"

best represents the theme in most of his songs: loss and longing. They touch the lonely places in your heart. They're what you hear when you're driving alone in your car, at 2 AM, headlights framing a ribbon of gray asphalt. Yellow lines shoot beneath your tires. You know you've lost something. Maybe the road will take you back to it. Maybe not. But right now it's just you, the road, and the line, "Strange what desire will make foolish people do. . . ."

Chris Isaak's latest, Baja Sessions, manages to retain the themes, but not as heavily, virtually opposite the raw, growling dark-ride called Forever Blue from last year. In Baja, the tone is casual, as if he had invited his band into his living room for a jam session, asking them to play softly so they wouldn't disturb his neighbors. The tunes are softer, romantic. His voice is still sad, still full of longing, but cheerful, even when he leaps to his trademark falsetto.

Baja's selections consist of Isaak's own material and his covers of several ballads. One title unofficially ascribed to Isaak is "the new Roy Orbison," mainly because of the similar singing styles, including the falsetto. Isaak's passionate version of "Only the Lonely," played on two acoustic guitars, a subtle Hammond organ, and wire-brush drums, works well without all the dramatic strings and choral voices of Orbison's version. Isaak also proves to be a gentle balladeer in the tradition of Marty Robbins with "South of the Border" and "Yellow Bird."

Also included on this set are different versions two songs from 1991's Heart-Shaped World, which demonstrates Isaak's ability to redo his own work to provide a different perspective on it. "Two Hearts," one of the softer selections from Heart-Shaped World, gets an even softer treatment. The 1991 "Wrong to Love You" contained a twanging guitar introduction and heavy rockabilly rhythm. The version from Baja is less driving, consistent with the recording's tone. But in both versions Isaak still delivers the lines, "There will be no song of love, there will be no sad refrain / There will be no last goodbye, no slow walk in the rain," with heartbreak.

Two original numbers, separated by Isaak's cover of the traditional ballad "Sweet Leilani" (sung, it seems, with a touch of a smirk), complete Baja Sessions. One is a light rhythm-and-blues dance tune appropriately titled "Dancin'." And the entire recording finishes with the optimistic "Think of Tomorrow," which contains both Isaak's trademarks: the pulled-string guitar solo and his falsetto.

The recording will be a pleasant and unexpected surprise for Chris Isaak's fans. Even when he's not exploring his dark and lonely themes, the man can perform. Think of it this way: if you would listen to one of his other recordings when someone has bailed out of your life, Baja Sessions is the one you would have on the stereo if someone were in your life. And close by.