Chris Isaak rides newly cool groove in 'San Francisco Days'


No one in rock and roll does '50s-style tragic cool better than Chris Isaak. It isn't just a matter of looks, though his classic, Elvis-meets-James Dean features have certainly won him more than a few fans -- Isaak also has precisely the right sound for his image.

His voice, for example, manages to capture both the purring sexuality of Presley's throaty murmur and the forlorn intensity of Roy Orbison's falsetto, while infusing both with doomed fatalism of a Chet Baker ballad. Then there's the way his band uses lonesome guitar moans or a torpid, reverb-soaked pulse to suggest the repressed menace of '50s film noir. That was what drew director David Lynch to Isaak's "Wicked Game" (the song figures prominently in the soundtrack to Lynch's "Wild at Heart"), and what has earned the singer most of his audience.

But "San Francisco Days" (Reprise 45116, in stores today) adds another element to Isaak's sound: groove. Because unlike his previous outings, which restricted their rhythmic content to low-rev rockabilly and slow-boiling ballads, this album puts a little more punch behind Isaak's singing. And while that doesn't change the music's mood, it sharpens the songwriting and enlivens Isaak's delivery -- a combination that makes this his most interesting and accessible album to date.

"Can't Do a Thing (To Stop Me)" is a case in point. It's easy to hear why this love song was chosen as the album's first single; not only does mournful guitar glissando in the introduction recall the heartbreak twang of "Wicked Game," but the way Isaak slides from a whispering croon on the verse to a sweet, soaring falsetto on the chorus communicates the romantic yearning Isaak has made his specialty.

What ultimately seduces the listener, though, are the subtleties beneath that surface. Start with the beat, a sort of funky samba that plays a lazily prodding bassline against a quietly percolating swirl of high-hat and snare drum; not only does it deftly propel the tune, it also neatly imparts the itchy intensity of the singer's carnal desire. Add to that the tension between Isaak's insistent delivery and the cool reserve of the backing vocals, and you're left with an arrangement that tells this song's story as vividly as any lyric ever could.

"San Francisco Days" is full of such moments. This is dramatic music in the purest sense of the term, and the best songs here convey as much of their emotional content through sound as through wordplay.

Cue up "Except the New Girl," and it's easy to hear how Tom Brumley's pedal steel captures the protagonist's loneliness and lack of love without pulling the song away from its happy ending; switch to "Beautiful Homes," and it's hard not to be moved by pathos implicit in the squalling guitar and Isaak's pleading vocal. And if you don't feel the hopelessness hidden in the ghostly shimmer of guitar at the beginning of "Waiting," odds are that you'll never grasp the inner drama built into the lyric.

Some of the musical ideas expressed here constitute fairly dramatic departures for the singer. "Round 'N' Round," for instance, may seem just an edgy rockabilly rave on the surface, but deep down it owes as much to the electropunk experiments of Suicide as to any Sonny Burgess single. Built around a cheesy drum machine shuffle (imagine toy mice beating on matchbooks) and some fiery Danny Gatton guitar work, it simmers ominously before Isaak cuts loose, whooping dementedly through the final choruses. Yet this unexpected abandon seems no more out of character than the moody understatement of the more conventional "5:15."

In a sense, Isaak's new-found range merely reinforces what a breakthrough this album is. Because in broadening the rhythmic base of his music, Isaak has also freed up his performances emotionally. Without the sassy, organ-fueled swagger the band generates on "Lonely with a Broken Heart," it's doubtful he could have given such a soulful rendering of the lyric; likewise, it seems unimaginable that he could have pulled as much desperate intensity from "Move Along" had it not been for the surly blues groove behind him.

In his hands, even the predictable self-pity of Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" turns into a statement of epic resignation. And that's enough to make "San Francisco Days" a success by any standard.

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