Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
For her fourth album, Absolute Torch And Twang (1989), k.d. lang closed out her career as a country singer on a high note before revamping her sound in the next decade & beyond. Her key collaborator here & on the following few albums was multi-instrumentalist and co-producer Ben Mink. Although they worked together before, this is the album where their musical partnership took full flight, as 8 of its 12 songs were co-written by the two of them. As I discussed in my previous post, her first three albums were extremely enjoyable and her talents were on full display right from the start, but Absolute Torch And Twang is the pinnacle of her “country & western” years. Her voice continues to impress…that’s no surprise…but it’s the quality of the songwriting & musicianship that makes it so special. Even people who claim they “don’t like country” would find much to enjoy here. It was a pleasure spending time with this record over the past couple of weeks and it will continue to be one of my go-to k.d. lang albums in the future.
♪ “Luck In My Eyes” – The album begins with a foot-tapping beat and clean acoustic guitar picking & strumming, then slowly builds to a fuller arrangement. It features two fantastic hooks: “Gonna walk away from trouble with my head held high, then look closer you’ll see luck in my eyes” and her soaring vocals at “All my troubles, all…my troubles gone.”
♪ “Trail Of Broken Hearts” – This one immediately caught my ear with the 5-note guitar motif and stop-start rhythm. It’s atmospheric with subtle percussion driving it forward before a steadier beat eventually takes over. Her voice, as always, is warm & welcoming.
♪ “Full Moon Full Of Love” – Not composed by lang or any of her regular collaborators but her interpretation of this newly-written song made it a #1 hit on the Canadian Country chart. It’s carried along by a lightly chugging country shuffle with tinkling piano & sweet fiddle. Her harmonized vocals give the impression of a train whistle. This could be a lost ‘50s/‘60s country song.
♪ “Pullin’ Back The Reins” – An instant classic in 6/8 time; moody with a deep guitar tone and huge chorus (“Pullin’ back the reins, trying to remain tall in the saddle when all that we had well…ran away”). This is a great showcase for her voice.
♪ “Nowhere To Stand” – The only song here written solely by lang, in a waltz tempo, featuring just guitar, organ & strings. The lyrics, about child abuse & how it’s passed down from one generation to the next, are very powerful (“A family tradition, the strength of this land, where what’s right & wrong is the back of a hand”). I would love to hear her tackle this type of material more often.
No one outside of lang’s inner circle could have predicted her next move: a shift to a slicker adult contemporary sound with Ingénue (1992), a multi-million seller that included her biggest hit single and scored her a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. She may have been well-known before, but by the end of the year she would be a superstar. She retained her production team of Ben Mink & Greg Perry while she & Mink co-wrote 8 of the album’s 10 tracks. There’s not a hint of country music to be found here. I’m sure this turned off some older fans but she obviously gained a lot of new ones in the process. Had she waited 4 or 5 years she would have been a perfect choice for the female-centric Lilith Fair tours but, as was the case since the start of her career, she was way ahead of her time. Ingénue was my initial introduction to her music and it made an immediate impression. Upon revisiting it after many years it came across as much mellower than I remember. It took several spins before some of the quieter songs made an impression but the ones I remembered from years ago remained fresh & vital. This must be one of the most unlikely multi-platinum albums ever released, a testament to the power of her unique vocal talents and songwriting abilities.
♪ “The Mind Of Love” – A slow, jazzy tune with Latin tinges in the guitar & percussion accents. Features an awesome refrain with guitar & violin as well as a couple of lovely hooks at “Why…hurt yourself Kathryn” and “Can your heart conceal what the mind of love reveals?”
♪ “Miss Chatelaine” – The upbeat feel of this bubbly tune is intoxicating, as lang slips into the role of a romantic heroine. She sounds positively radiant as she sings, “Every time your eyes meet mine, clouds of qualm burst into sunshine.” Fiddle & accordion add a European flavor. I don’t usually comment on promotional videos but in this case it’s worth noting that her persona here is like nothing we’ve seen before, as if she’s purposely trying to confound expectations.
♪ “Wash Me Clean” – Slow, moody & relaxing. Her voice is mostly hushed, yet the highlight for me has always been the one part where her voice really soars: “Wash…wash me clean…mend my wounded seams.”
♪ “Constant Craving” – Her calling card and the biggest hit of her career. Its success is well-earned, from the instrumentation (acoustic guitar then accordion followed by sparse percussion & full drums) to the awesome vocal arrangement. It was perfectly suited to the VH1 adult contemporary audience at the time. Five years later, lang & Mink received co-writing credit on The Rolling Stones’ hit single, “Anybody Seen My Baby?,” simply because it was brought to Mick Jagger’s attention that the chorus bore an unintentional similarity to “Constant Craving.” It was probably the easiest money lang & Mink ever made.
After celebrating the success of a breakthrough album, most artists do one of two things: (a) repeat the formula hoping to hang on to as many fans as possible or (b) try something drastically different to avoid getting pigeonholed. It’s no surprise that an artist as unique as k.d. lang would choose the second option. In the immediate afterglow of her Grammy success, she released the soundtrack to an unsuccessful Gus Van Sant film called Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1993). I saw the movie shortly after it was released and recall very little…probably because I fell asleep in the middle of it (as did the friend who accompanied me and probably a large portion of the audience). Fortunately the soundtrack, co-written by lang & Mink, is enjoyable on its own. Several of the 16 tracks are short incidental pieces and a handful of others are instrumentals. All of these are very good but not necessarily memorable. There are various musical elements in play throughout the record, from exotic jazzy shuffles to peppy bluegrass, but only 4 tracks featuring vocals made a lasting impact on me. Overall the album works well as background music with a few notable standouts, and it’s recommended only for serious k.d. lang fans.
♪ “Hush Sweet Lover” – A slow Latin-flavored tune that would have been another highlight on Ingénue. Everything about it (verse, chorus, bridge) is fantastic and I love the way she belts out, “I’m willing to fall…I’ll give you my all.” Too bad this is the only truly great song on the soundtrack.
[k.d. lang – “Hush Sweet Lover”] [audio http://k007.kiwi6.com/hotlink/h8p9ek48bx/Hush_Sweet_Lover_k.d._lang_.mp3]
Her proper follow-up to Ingénue came a couple of years later in the form of All You Can Eat (1995), a slickly-produced collection of pop songs that maintains a similar feel from start to finish. There are a handful of noteworthy tracks but overall the sound quality (and her voice, of course) is better than the songwriting. Once again her main collaborator here is Ben Mink, who co-wrote all the songs and co-produced the album along with lang and Marc Ramaer, but this would be the last time Mink featured prominently on one of her records. It cracked the Top 40 in the U.S. but only went Gold (sales of 500,000 copies), which is a success for most artists but had to be deemed a disappointment compared to the 2-million-selling Ingénue. I remember being underwhelmed when I first heard it in 1995, but it holds up better than I expected even though, song-for-song, it’s not in the same league as most of her prior releases. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if a lot of fans like it more than I do since, as I mentioned above, the production is stellar. Of course, listening to k.d. lang sing even a mediocre song is still a rewarding experience.
♪ “If I Were You” – The album opener is also the strongest song here; sparse mid-‘90s adult contemporary at its finest. Her phrasing, as she draws out certain words, makes it stand out even more: “If…I…could only be…the queen…of popularity.” I’ve often wondered if she’s singing about someone specific or just longing to be anyone else.
This batch of albums started off strong but the last two were slight disappointments. I’m eager to hear how other fans feel about all four of the records discussed above, since this is the era that even casual fans would probably be most familiar with. Based on my memories of the albums I’ll be revisiting for my next post, there should be a nice bounce-back. During that period she recorded a brilliant set of smoky covers, a collection of upbeat sunshine-pop and a collaboration with one of the greatest singers of the 20th century & beyond. Needless to say I’m very excited to spend time with all of them over the next week or two. I hope they’re as good as I remember.