Drag (Warner Bros.)
k.d. lang

By Bob Bahr

Since back in the mid- to late-'80s when k.d. lang half-kiddingly called her band the Re-clines in reference to her claim that she was the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, a listener could best appreciate the brilliant Canadian singer when lang's sense of humor was factored into the picture. It has been subtle, at least on record, as in the prissy "Miss Chatelaine," which was amusing for the irony of it being sung by the earthy lang.

Lang has shaken free and fully indulged her love of double entendres and general campiness on Drag, an album that heavily relies on lang's vocal technique and interpretations to remain buoyant. The humor ain't enough; in fact, it's too much. Even the album's title and cover photo are immersed in kitschy humor -- holding her right hand as if there was a burning cigarette in it, lang poses like a beefcake in an early 20th century men's suit complete with spats. Within, the theme of love as addiction as potent as cigarette smoking is presented with the thematic subtlety of an Oliver Stone movie. Song titles include "Don't Smoke in Bed," "Smoke Dreams," "My Last Cigarette," "Your Smoke Screen," "Smoke Rings," and "My Old Addiction." The songs are collected from a variety of sources, so it's not a matter of lang exploring this theme herself. Rather, it is a rather vacuous collage that isn't satisfying when taken as a whole.

The listener is left with the task of appreciating individual songs. Surprisingly, one of the more bewitching of the dozen included on Drag is "The Air That I Breathe," the '70s Hollies hit with a chorus that sneaks in like a thief. Lang gives it a less sugary, almost obsessive tone that is riveting and a bit unsettling.

"Smoke Dreams" is campy jazz from when jazz was pop; Teddy Borowiecki's keyboard playing would fly on the Lawrence Welk show. "Smoke Rings" and "Love Is Like a Cigarette" work because lang can sing torch songs with both hands and one leg tied behind her back, although Joe Lovano's sax work on the latter track is sabotaged by the intrusive arrangement. "Till the Heart Caves In" is likewise executed with incredible ease, which would surprise no lang fan who learns that the song was co-written by Roy Orbison. Lang's sympathetic grasp of Orbison's thang was established long ago. And her treatment of this cut is properly grand and soaring.

Or, more accurately, the production cooked up by lang and Craig Street is properly large. Elsewhere, however, the production on Drag ranges from on-the-money to questionable. Certainly, Greg Leisz's steel guitar on "Smoke Rings" puts some nice twang beside lang's torch. But the approach used on "The Joker," the Steve Miller song that has been released as the album's first single, is boring to the point of being criminal. Guest guitarist Wendy Melvoin plays some uninspired wah-wah in place of Miller's eloquent licks, and the whole affair lurches unsteadily on relaxed (read: weak) legs. Yes, lang's vocalizing is salve for alt-rock-bombarded ears, but there's nothing different enough about this hit reworking to raise an eyebrow. It's safe to say that lang is missing the input of her long-time collaborator, Ben Mink.

Lang's last record, All You Can Eat, was a heavily seductive work with polished grooves. Lang sang with a sexual allure that was mischievous -- nay, devilish. It was cohesive, narcotic, heady. Drag aptly showcases the singer's exceptional voice and phrasing, but the context and the concept are flimsy.