KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

K.D. LANG Part 2 – Pullin’ Back The Reins

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 k.d. lang - Absolute Torch And Twangdecade & 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.

The Essentials:

♪     “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.

k.d. lang Photo (from Absolute Torch And Twang CD)Other Notable Tracks:

  • “Three Days” – An early ‘60s Willie Nelson song that was a hit for Faron Young. It’s a smooth country shuffle with a walking bass line; a traditional sound that’s still quite fresh.
  • “Wallflower Waltz” – A slow waltz featuring Mink’s tasteful mandolin strumming. There aren’t any major hooks but it’s pleasant with great music & vocals and the subject matter (an ode to shy people) is a worthy topic.
  • “Big Big Love” – A rockabilly/country hybrid originally by Wynn Stewart. Her voice is big & bawdy. You can tell she’s having fun singing over that insistent drum beat.

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 k.d. lang - IngénueVocal 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 Essentials:

♪     “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.

k.d. lang Photo (Miss Chatelaine CD single)Other Notable Tracks:

  • “Save Me” – An interesting choice to open the album; its lush, light samba groove with weeping lap steel guitar taking its time to draw in the listener. The slow, languid pace and her soft & warm vocals ease you into her world. I especially love the way she sings “the caaaptive free” and “like looove can be.”
  • “Still Thrives This Love” – I love the ascending high-pitched guitar strumming above the pizzicato strings. It eventually gives way to a midtempo Latin groove. This song is a perfect example of how she never oversings, only raising her voice for, “But still somehow…thrives this love.”
  • “Season Of Hollow Soul” – Highlighted by an excellent subtle jazzy rhythm and a powerful chorus: “Fate must have a reason, why else endure the season of hollow soul?”
  • “Outside Myself” – Like the previous song, the verses aren’t that special but the choruses make it noteworthy: “I’ve been outside myself for so long, every feeling I had is close to gone.”

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 k.d. lang - Even Cowgirls Get The Blueschoose 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.

The Essential:

♪     “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]

k.d. lang Photo (Lifted By Love CD single)Other Notable Tracks:

  • “Just Keep Me Moving” – An upbeat pop song with a chiming guitar figure opens up the album. It’s poppier than anything on Ingénue and features a funky modern feel we hadn’t previously heard from her. Lyrically speaking there’s not much to it, but the vocal arrangement is extremely clever and the rhythm makes it special.
  • “Lifted By Love” – A peppy tune with shakers & a steady beat driving it along. The lyrics are simple, almost like a couple of mantras, and it’s “lifted” by those lush self-harmonies.
  • “Curious Soul Astray” – A folky waltz that combines her old country style with her newer “pop” vocals. I like the quirky arrangement with various instruments peeking through during the instrumental section.

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 k.d. lang - All You Can Eatsound 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.

The Essentials:

♪     “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.

Other Notable Tracks:
  • k.d. lang Photo (circa 1995)“Sexuality” – The verses move along with a muted midtempo rhythm that opens up for the chorus, which is where this song really grabbed me: “Release yourself upon me, free the hounds of chastity.”
  • “Get Some” – On a slightly funky yet muted groove her voice is typically smooth but there’s a looseness to her performance that sets it apart (“Everyone, every day, looking for some along the way”). It’s a little too slick for its own good but still catchy & enjoyable.
  • “Acquiesce” – Also the title of an Oasis song released that same year but that’s where the similarities end. Her song features a jazzy/funky groove with sparse bass. There’s not much to it melodically speaking but I really like the mood and those self-harmonized vocals. This one’s a real grower, and could one day become an “essential” track for me.
  • “World Of Love” – Reminds me of her later soundtrack contribution, “Anywhere But Here,” which I discussed in the preview post to this series, with its lilting melody especially at the chorus (“And so the world of love begins”). This song may not be quite as good but it’s one of the highlights of All You Can Eat.

k.d. lang Photo 2 (circa 1995)

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.

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9 comments on “K.D. LANG Part 2 – Pullin’ Back The Reins

  1. "Vinyl Connection"
    July 2, 2014

    Thorough and thoughtful. Nice one Rich.

    I saw ms lang at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda, a funky bayside suburb of Melbourne, around 1993. Went with a sister-orientated mate and we both enjoyed the concert very much. It sticks in my mind as being the only popular music concert I have ever been to where, as a male, I was in such a small minority.

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    • Thanks Bruce. Glad you enjoyed this post. I didn’t see k.d. lang in concert until the Invincible Summer tour around 2000-2001. She was fantastic and I had a similar experience with the mostly female crowd. The only thing that mattered, of course, is that everyone had a great time. I have a bootleg CD of a show she did in Seattle on the same tour you saw. I won’t be including that in this series since I prefer to focus on legitimate “official” releases, but I will likely give it a spin after I finish revisiting her discography in a few weeks.

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  2. 45spin
    July 2, 2014

    Excellent post. The woman has one of those voices that gives me the chills and thrills at the same time. Her twangy country stuff still is my favorite era of hers.
    The later stuff I never really caught on with me as it was too slick for my tastes. I guess I was hoping she would take the direction of another Canadian Joni Mitchell and dig a little deeper and jazzier and stay away from pop.

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    • Thanks. Happy to hear you enjoy her country era. Do you have a favorite of those four albums? I completely understand your feelings about her subsequent releases even though I feel differently. I could listen to her voice sing almost anything and enjoy it, but it helps when the songs & arrangements are great. She’s also a fantastic interpreter of other people’s songs, which is something I’ll get into in my next post.

      As for Joni, she’s in her own league. I did a multi-part series on her discography and it was one of the most incredible musical rides I’ve ever taken.

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  3. theEARLofSWIRL
    July 3, 2014

    “Absolute Torch & Twang” really impressed me when I heard it, but I was actually checking it out because of Ben Mink. He had replaced Nash The Slash in FM (a trio that every Rush fan should check out) because of his electric mandolin and violin skills, saw him play with them in my place of employment at the time (C.C.C.). Also have his “Foreign Exchange” album (produced by Daniel Lanois), as well as a Mendelson Joe album he’s on.
    I was a little skeptical about his transition from Prog-rock-Folk-Jazz to Country-Pop.So obviously I had a pre-existing bias as to this album, but K.D’s voice really stunned me and won me over, she is a Canadian National Heritage I’m extremely proud of. And I’ve taken a lot of heat from hard rock friends because I like “Miss Chatelaine”!!

    Thorough and interesting review again Rich- didn’t know that about Ben and “Anybody Seen My Baby?”.

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    • I was also initially drawn to k.d. lang because of Ben Mink’s contributions to her music. Not sure if you saw my previous post, but I mentioned how I saw FM open for Rush on the “Moving Pictures” tour in ’81 and immediately became a fan. I thought it was cool that a decade later (which is when I first checked out lang’s albums) this guy from an obscure Canadian prog-rock trio would be so important to someone who’s music is pretty far removed from prog. I’ve never read why they parted company.

      Also, you get bonus points for happily admitting your enjoyment of “Miss Chatelaine.” Any music fan with an open mind would understand & possibly agree. Everyone else is missing out.

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  4. stephen1001
    July 10, 2014

    When I used to read novels, I was all about plot – I’ve since started to really appreciate a well written sentence. And your too early for Lilith Fair sentence was an excellent (and accurate) one here!

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    • Much appreciated, Geoff. Before I began revisiting her catalog I couldn’t remember the years of her most popular albums as compared with the Lilith Fair. I got into Sarah McLachlan when her debut was released in late-’88 and incorrectly recalled that she started the Lilith Fair just a few years later. Of course, Sarah didn’t break through big-time until about 5 years later and it took another couple of years before she put together those tours…way past the point where k.d. lang would have needed the exposure. Of course, she would have blown every other singer off the stage, so perhaps she was never invited.

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