Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
When Kathryn Dawn Lang, better known as the intentionally lower-case k.d. lang, first made her presence known here in the US in the late-‘80s, she was not the kind of artist I was likely to respond to. Although I grew up listening to some classic country music (Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Webb Pierce, etc.) and I’ve always tried to keep an open mind, a big-voiced, androgynous female Canadian country singer was not something I was interested in listening to during my early-20s. It was her persona rather than her music that was likely a turnoff to me at the time, but a few years later I came to appreciate her in a big way and have been a fan ever since (the same applies to another singer-songwriter who appeared on the scene at around the same time, Lyle Lovett; he will be a worthy subject for a blog series in the future).
Like many fans, I first entered lang’s musical world with 1992’s Ingénue via its adult-contemporary hit song, “Constant Craving,” and quickly fell in love with the entire album. Once that voice wrapped itself around my ears I needed to hear more, and I immediately went back to her three previous major label albums. This wasn’t an artist who took time to develop her sound. Her talents were immediately on display, and over the years she’s shown a knack for delivering the goods in any style she chooses to takes on, whether solo or collaborating with artists as diverse as Roy Orbison, Dion, Tony Bennett, Take 6 and many others. I’ve been enough of a fan for the last two decades to own all of her albums but recently I realized that I haven’t played many of them more than a handful of times. With this series I will be giving each album the time it deserves and sharing my thoughts on a few records at a time as I get reacquainted with them. I recently spent a week with her first three releases and enjoyed them more with each successive listen. I’m pleased to finally discuss them here after a brief delay caused by a backlog of personal & work obligations.
Her debut album, A Truly Western Experience (1984) was only released in Canada until finally being reissued (in expanded form) in 2010. It’s credited to k.d. lang and the reclines, a band name that would carry over to her major label debut a few years later. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but it took until last week to finally realize that the name “Reclines” was a barely-veiled reference to her biggest influence, legendary country singer Patsy Cline. I’m also ashamed that I only own Cline’s 12 Greatest Hits CD, so if anyone can recommend a stronger anthology of her work I would greatly appreciate it. But this is a series on k.d. lang so I’ll get back to her now. A Truly Western Experience is a strong collection of country & rockabilly tunes, split evenly between originals written by lang or various band members and cover songs. Lang’s powerful vocals were already fully developed, and considering she was only 23 the year this album was released makes her talent even more remarkable. Of course, a good voice needs quality songs to sing and this album is full of them. Only a handful are truly special but it’s a fun listen from start to finish (with one quirky song thrown in for good measure, which I’ll discuss below) and the bonus material on the re-release (two early single-only tracks, a demo and a handful of live recordings) makes it an even more enjoyable “experience.”
♪ “Up To Me” – A rollicking rockabilly shuffle with shared lead vocals between lang and piano player Stewart MacDougall (who also wrote the song). It has a strong boogie-woogie feel and really swings, with stellar organ work as well.
♪ “Busy Being Blue” – A slightly predictable but expertly performed slow bluesy waltz written by MacDougall. It would later be re-recorded for her third album, but this version is just as good. Her voice is perfectly suited to this style: “Time to take a walk and time to sit & talk, but you know I’m too busy…bein’ blue.”
♪ “Stop, Look And Listen” – An upbeat, swinging Patsy Cline song that’s fun & peppy and was probably a highlight of her live shows. The vibe & musicianship are both excellent, and it had me seeking out Cline’s original (which is sadly not on the aforementioned 12 Greatest Hits CD).
Other Notable Tracks:
Her first major label album, Angel With A Lariat (1987), recorded for Sire/Warner Brothers, was produced by retro-rock legend (and co-founder of Rockpile) Dave Edmunds. Credited once again to k.d. lang and the reclines, only one musician (guitarist Gordie Matthews) carried over from the previous album. The rockabilly elements are in stronger force this time while the more traditional country flavors are less prominent. It’s a slightly tighter collection of songs than her debut and the only concessions to the decade in which it was recorded are the big echo-y drums and loud guitars. Fortunately, lang’s vocals can shine through any setting and she’s in great form throughout the record. This album marks the first appearance of her future producer & key collaborator, Ben Mink, who would oversee her mainstream commercial breakthrough a few years later. I was already familiar with Mink’s work as a member of Canadian progressive rock band FM. They opened up for Rush when I saw them in 1981, and his appearance on Ingénue was one of the key selling points for me to initially check out her work.
♪ “Diet Of Strange Places” – A sweet country semi-ballad with a walking bass line & tasteful piano, written by lang. It features nice steel guitar work, and I love how her voice swoops with perfect control.
♪ “Tune Into My Wave” – Mink wrote this bouncy & upbeat song that includes a Dave Edmunds-y twangy guitar riff. She sounds like she’s having a blast with the rockabilly groove and the group vocals through the chorus are instantly catchy.
♪ “Three Cigarettes In An Ashtray” – A gorgeous string-laden sappy (in a good way) country ballad previously recorded by Patsy Cline. It’s the perfect setting for lang’s soaring voice, and a fitting end to the album.
For her third album, Shadowland (1988), subtitled “The Owen Bradley Sessions,” she turned to legendary country producer Bradley, who oversaw dozens of hits for Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and many others as one of the originators of the ‘50s/’60s “Nashville Sound.” His stark, string-laden arrangements set this apart from her previous work, and that’s one of the reasons that it’s her first album credited solely to k.d. lang (without the reclines). This album is more of a grower than her previous efforts, but while those albums were carried along by the exuberance of everyone involved, this collection of songs was geared to showcase her voice first & foremost. One of the things that sets k.d. lang apart from many other singers with similar sets of pipes is that she’s all about the song. I don’t believe she’s ever reached for a note to show off her voice, preferring to simply be the vehicle that showcases the emotion of each song…and the songs on Shadowland are particularly strong, especially the ones highlighted below.
♪ “Western Stars” – Chris Isaak, who would score his own big breakthrough the following year with the similar “Wicked Game,” wrote this moody tune that includes nice nylon string & weepy steel guitars. I love the way the guitar flutters & jumps around her subtle vocals. It’s a surprisingly effective album opener for such a subdued song.
♪ “Black Coffee” – A ballad from the ‘40s/’50s with echo-y vocals. She sounds like a jazz singer at a smoky bar. It’s sultry, sophisticated and perfectly arranged.
Other Notable Tracks:
I had an absolute blast spending time with these records again after many years of them gathering dust on the shelf. I’m very excited about doing the same with the remainder of her catalog. There are plenty of changes in store but that only makes her discography more compelling. I hope to hear from other fans who are equally enthralled by the sound of her voice and the various musical twists & turns her career has taken.