By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun
July 9, 2011
Of all the singers to hit the pop music scene in the past 25 years, k.d. lang continues to stand out.
There's the timbre of her voice, a sound remarkably dark and rich and deep. Then there's the technique, with its unfailing intonation and evenness of projection. Add in the instinctive phrasing, whether addressing country or rock or good old standards, and lang looms large.
Thursday will find the artist and her new band, aptly named Siss Boom Bang, performing at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, part of their tour in support of the recent Nonesuch Records release, "Sing It Loud."
The album marks something of a return to lang's early days. It's her first record made entirely with a band of her own since her career-starting releases (with a group called the Reclines). And the disc includes what the Canadian-born, four-time-Grammy-winning singer-songwriter calls "the cow punk thing," the country style lang started out with in the mid-1980s.
The high-energy recording, which features songs written by lang with band members Joe Pisapia, Daniel Clarke and Joshua Grange (and a cover of Talking Heads' "Heaven"), was made quickly in Nashville last year.
"There was so much energy in the studio," lang, 49, said in phone interview. "The magic was there. We did eight songs in three days, which is lightning speed, really. The love and positivity in the room felt so natural and so familiar. It's rare."
The material on the album and the tour might represent a departure from lang's recent work.
"I must say it's definitely louder and more raucous than what some people may be expecting," she said. "Every record I put out is different, so it sometimes takes people a little longer to catch up. But audiences have definitely been very energetic on the tour. It's been a lot of fun."
Lang's stylistic versatility is one reason she has remained such a fascinating force in the music world.
"I spent from birth to probably the age of 16 listening to my elder siblings play classical piano for hours and hours," she said with a laugh. "My ear was very used to that. And the singers I admired, like Peggy Lee, Roy Orbison and Elvis — I could go on and on and on — these great singers sang many genres. That's the mark of a good vocalist. Music was never divided by genre in my mind. It's about singing good music."
Defining good music is always a matter for debate. Lang has clear-cut ideas on the subject.
"You can have incredible music, but the lyrics don't have so much to say," she said. "Think of Paul McCartney's 'Jet,' where he suddenly says 'suffragette.' It doesn't make any sense. but the melody is fun. There has to be a deep emotional connection between the performer and the song; it has to resonate. If you can translate it to the audience and have them react emotionally, you've done your job."
Lang did that job with particular distinction when she collaborated with veteran vocal artist Tony Bennett on "It's a Wonderful World," a warmly expressive 2002 disc of standard pop songs.
"Life throws you a curveball, and suddenly you are singing with someone you never would have expected to sing with," lang said. "Working with Tony got me interested in the Great American Songbook. With Tony leading the way, giving me the keys to the city, it felt pretty good. I have a long life ahead of me — I hope — so I'll have a chance to do more of those songs."
In addition to leaving her mark on music, lang has also had an impact in the area of gay rights as an out — and outspoken — performer since 1992.
"The mind-set of Americans is definitely improving when it comes to gay rights," lang said. "There is lots of gay representation on TV, from candidates on 'Top Chef' to characters on 'Glee.' It's more accessible. And the move toward gay marriage is stronger. It's moving in the right direction. But politically, it's a different story. The issue is a pawn in a huge game."
Looking at the music industry, which has changed considerably since lang arrived on the scene, the singer offers two views.
"When you've got your microvision on, you can get upset or cynical and have sort of a negative reaction to things that are going on," she said, "like 'American Idol,' which I think is not that positive. But when you pull back, you can see that this is par for the course. The pendulum always swings. You get a lot of boring pop, and then you get Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. You get disco and then you get Kurt Cobain."
Chances are, lang will continue strong, no matter how the pendulum swings around her.
"My basic lifestyle is built about preserving my voice," she said. "I'm something of a freak about it — eating raw fruits and vegetables, drinking coconut water, doing exercises. When I wake up, I start humming; humming helps get the pipes warmed up. And I never sing anything that hurts."
Lang does have other creative outlets. Like Bennett, she paints, for example.
"But for a job, I really like doing music," she said. "It's a pretty nice lifestyle. On a good day, I feel like I'll sing till I'm 90."
tim.smith @baltsun. com
If you go
k.d. lang and Siss Boom Bang perform at 8 p.m. Thursday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Tickets are $38 to $75. Call 410-783-8000 or go to bsomusic.org or ticketmaster.com
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