Welcome To The Lonesome, Gorgeous World of Chris Isaak

One day in 1990, shortly after his song, "Wicked Game," broke into the Top

10, shortly after Chris Isaak's boyhood dreams of stardom had, finally,

come true, he stood on a stage in an empty concert hall in San Diego

singing a song he didn't write that had been popularized by Ricky Nelson:

"Lonesome Town." The song is, of course, about an imaginary town where a

jilted lover has been banished, a Twilight Zone of the heart. If Isaak had

called his gorgeous new album "Lonesome Town," it wouldn't have been

inappropriate.

Isaak is the bard of the lonely. He's the handsome silent type that Miss

Lonely Hearts dreams of joining for a ride off into the sunset. Only

Isaak--or at least the character he plays in nearly all of his songs--is

just as lonely and sad. Baja Sessions may well be Isaak's greatest

work. A seemingly casual affair that mixes remakes of older material with

a few covers and some new songs, the album is actually the first Isaak

album in which the listener is, come the very first note of "Pretty Girls

Don't Cry" (which opens the album) through "Think Of Tomorrow," the set

closer, completely immersed in Isaak's world.

Put on this album and within seconds you're sitting on that veranda

overlooking the courtyard of some Pop. 150-Mexican town, sipping from the

second (or is it the third?) Corona, mooning about the girl/woman or

boy/man who left you or never even knew you existed or is across the sea

or... but, already, I'm sure you can see the picture.

The Baja Sessions, as much as anything Isaak has ever recorded, is

an album completely detached from the moment. Or at least for what passes

for Right Now. There is nothing trendy about this album. It's not

post-grunge or post-alternative. No metal influences. Not a hint of

industrial here (despite Isaak's friendship with the Filter guys). And

Isaak isn't laying claim to the title of Spokesman for a Generation.

Yet neither is this a retro affair. Go back and listen to Roy Orbison's

"Only the Lonely," which Isaak covers here. Listening to the Orbison

version is like stepping into a time machine set for 1962. But Isaak, who

uses just acoustic guitars and the faintest organ in the back of the mix

to frame his amazing vocal performance, has the advantage of growing up on

the Beatles, as well as his '50s idols. His version sounds timeless,

rather than dated.

That Isaak can make an album like this, an album that makes absolutely no

concessions to the marketplace, is an amazing thing in 1996. Every song

here is perfectly realized. The arrangements, the choice of

instrumentation, the approach to the vocals--everything is for the benefit

of just one thing: fully realizing the potential of the songs.

The world of Chris Isaak is one where the steel guitars, floating through

Hawaiian love songs, sit comfortably beside the reverb drenched lead

guitar parts of "Dancin'," where cowboy ballads and roadhouse rockers are

of a piece. Listen to Baja Sessions and you'll understand what I'm

talking about.

I've been a fan of Chris Isaak since I first heard his earliest demos

played on San Francisco's college station, KUSF, in the early '80s. With

the exception of the flawed San Francisco Days, I have been

transported by songs on every one of Isaak's previous albums. So I'm

obviously biased where Isaak's music is concerned. And, to be frank, if

you didn't think "Wicked Game" was an amazing song, it's doubtful that

this album will change your mind.

For Baja Sessions, Isaak has dipped into his songbook and

re-recorded some of his earliest songs ("Dancin'," "Pretty Girls Don't

Cry," "Back on Your Side" from his debut, Silvertone; "Wrong To

Love You" from Heart Shaped World; "Two Hearts" from San

Francisco Days), mixing them in with favorites by other writers

including the Orbison cover of "Only the Lonely," as well as Gene Autry's

"South of the Border" and Arthur Lyman's "Yellow Bird" and three new

compositions: "I Wonder," "Waiting For My Lucky Day" and the first single,

"Think Of Tomorrow."

All of this material, whether written by Isaak or others, fits together

seamlessly. Isaak has said that his goal was "to help create that romantic

mood you might feel in a place like Baja." In fact, he's actually created

the ultimate downbeat soundtrack for drowning your heartbreak, heartache

and longing in booze. Check this lyric from "I Wonder," which pretty much

sums up the mood of the entire album: "When I was younger I believed that

dreams came true/ Now I wonder/ Cause I've seen much more dark skies than

blues/ Now I wonder..."

For those who came to Isaak following his Top 10 success, Baja

Sessions is a way for Isaak to give some of his lesser known but truly

first class songs (I think specifically of "Back On Your Side") a second

chance. It has also allowed Isaak to do what most artists usually don't

do, bring the skills he's learned from over ten years of recording to some

recordings that recorded during his earliest days in a recording studio.

Since he first began playing clubs back in the early '80s, Isaak has had a

singular vision, and he has not swayed from it. Baja Sessions

proves that that vision is as vital and relevant as ever. If you have ever

been moved by a song, this album will, at times, bring you to tears. And,

really, what else can you ask for from an artist?