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[whitespace] Chris Isaak Isaak models the Brylcreem look.

Cock of the Walk

Movies, TV, recording star--Chris Isaak's everywhere, but does anyone really know him?

By Gina Arnold

IF THEY GAVE lifetime achievement prizes for rock stars the way they do at high school reunions--you know, most kids, weirdest job, furthest journey--Chris Isaak would win the one for having played to the widest variety of people at the largest variety of venues. In the past 15 years, he's done it all, from having had a weekly residence at San Francisco's cool I Beam club to opening for Tina Turner and the Thompson Twins at Concord Pavilion and entertaining rich yuppies at their expensive corporate Christmas parties. And those are just the gigs that come to mind. No doubt he's played many an Indian Bingo parlor, European awards show and Budokan behind our backs as well.

You could just write him off as a guy who's willing to do anything for a gig. But in fact, Isaak's catholic roster of performances says something profound about his music. Most rock artists appeal to one type of fan only, but his simple sound--which steals its soul from '50s crooners and rockabilly acts and then updates it to fit into 21st-century radio standards--has an incredibly broad appeal. The guy's music and ethos fit in just about anywhere: trailer parks where women in curlers place his records next to their Elvis and Roy Orbison discs, in the collections of cool young rich guys who slow dance to songs like "Pretty Girls Don't Cry" with black-frocked chicks.

You'd think, given this demographic elasticity, that Isaak would be a superstar of epic proportions. Instead, after 15 years of playing, singing, acting and grooving around town, he's still in the lower echelons of fame and fortune, a local act that can always draw a crowd but is never going to be mobbed on the street. And sadly, his latest CD, Always Got Tonight (Reprise), isn't going to change that role, despite his newfound fame on his Showtime TV series, The Chris Isaak Show.

It's a curious thing, this inability to go mega. After all, Isaak is handsome, intelligent and funny, and his live show would amuse a corpse. And yet his records--like those of certain other groups, including Soul Asylum and the Grateful Dead--never really convey his talent. Always Got Tonight is incredibly similar in sound and feel to previous efforts like Heart-Shaped World and San Francisco Days. The songs are all about lost love and low-level depression but couched in music that manages to balance catchiness with moodiness, and then wraps it up in Isaak's sweet, quavering tenor. Isaak's lyrics have chic brevity that keeps one hanging on: "I don't know why I feel so blue" is a typical sentiment. So is "Love is a flame / I just got burned again." Note that there's nary a two-syllable word in those verses--no mean feat for a guy with a B.A. in English.

But the simple, clever lyrics are one thing. The sentiments, however, are another. Throughout his career, Isaak's made a point of staying publicly single and musically sad-hearted. His song titles alone tell the story of a guy who blames the girl for every thing: "You Owe Me Some Kind of Love," Wicked Game," "Wrong to Love You." Such sentiments may be true to lots of people's experience, but they also show a streak of, well, not exactly misogyny, but a sentiment for which there is no doubt a long German word.

To wit, "poor, poor pitiful me" is the burden of Chris' cry, and although it makes for a good hook, it somehow sounds hollow coming from a guy like him. He never quite sounds sincere, floundering instead on the rocks of the facetious.

Indeed, as on his show, Isaak is more of a persona than a person, and his songs, though immensely well crafted and fun to listen to, are emotionally shallow at the core. That's OK on TV, where we all understand that he's playing a role, but the fictive quality of his persona in his songs somehow rankles. No doubt more "sincere" artists like Ryan Adams or John Mellencamp are also role-playing, but Isaak wants to make sure we know he is, and that stance wears a little thin. Always Got Tonight is a good record if you like Chris Isaak records, but it isn't going to tell you anything you don't already know about the guy. Or do I mean "know?"

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From the February 28-March 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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