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Isaak with his beloved blender, which he uses to mix shakes after each show
Rockabilly romantic

Tragically hip Chris Isaak harps on love, life and milkshakes

Web posted on:
Thursday, December 03, 1998 9:12:44 AM EST

From Donna Freydkin
Special to CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- For quixotic crooner Chris Isaak, music is a hunk of burning, stinging, ardent and all too often agonizing love.

Isaak has always been the maharaja of the melancholy, crooning soulfully tortured hymns of bitter liaisons, shattered relationships and crushed emotions. For the dumped and despondent, Isaak knows that love hurts and he feels your pain.

His seventh album, the fabulously pensive yet surprisingly upbeat "Speak of the Devil," is vintage Isaak. As always, he focuses on the unpredictable, tenuous and often tragic nature of love. Isaak blends rockabilly with romance, country and swing with blues and pop, producing a delightful combination of Roy Orbison and Elvis. On a national tour to promote "Speak of the Devil," Isaak chatted about jelly donuts, which he hates, surfing, his great love, and his latest album.

"It's the new 'happy Chris,' for kids everywhere," says Isaak of the peppier "Speak of the Devil." "It's not exactly satanic, but it does contain a druid beat."

Marilyn Manson or Slayer it ain't, but "Speak of the Devil" is certainly more energetic and robust than Isaak's previously spare albums. Isaak describes it as a blend of "Abbey Road" and Phil Spector, an album that sounds "More like a live album, more like our live show."

"The last album we did was 'Baja Sessions,' and that was very quiet, very laid back, just kind of pretty music. This album is a little louder, it sounds more like a full studio, with a full kit and bigger arrangements," says Isaak.

On his seventh album in 14 years, Isaak's music has a new stamina not seen on his previous efforts, such as the spare "Heart Shaped World" and "Forever Blue." More polished and bubbly than his earlier austere, stripped-down albums, "Speak of the Devil" is an engaging blend of Phil Spector and "Abbey Road," a charming mix of pretty music with the vintage reflective lyrics concocted by wordsmith Isaak.

Clips from "Speak of the Devil"

Audio clip: 330k WAV

"Don't Get So Down on Yourself"
Audio clip: 320k WAV

Pretty music for the brokenhearted

In person, the former semi-pro boxer with the smooth falsetto is a far cry from the mournful, introspective minstrel of the lovelorn heard on his albums. Hours before hitting the stage at a sold-out show, Isaak -- dressed in a hideously garish green Hawaiian-print shirt, baggy black slacks and black loafers -- is animated, frank and disarmingly, bitingly funny. And, of course, as his legions of female fans know too well, he's not exactly DNA-challenged, either.

Since releasing his first album, "Silvertone," in 1985, Isaak has perfected the role of rockabilly romantic, best typified on his 1989 platinum-selling album "Heart Shaped World," his most commercially successful release to date.

Isaak's signature sound was perhaps best showcased in the restrained 1990 single "Wicked Game," the video for which showed scantily clad supermodel Helena Christensen scampering with Isaak on a deserted beach. Since then, he has maintained a sizeable fan base, with both his 1993 album "San Francisco Days" and 1995's "Forever Blue" achieving gold sales.

On "Speak of the Devil," the always fanciful Isaak continues to delve into the many facets of love affairs and seems to particularly enjoy crooning about those gone bad. Isaak fixates on the emotional residue of demolished relationships and at his best, his voice projects a gentle yearning that slices right through the album's somewhat slick surface. On the anguished "Breaking Apart," he laments a broken relationship, while "Please" is a plea to accept love without examining relationships in minute detail.

Isaak seems to thrive on nothing more than baring his broken heart. His favorite song, says Isaak, is the uplifting "Don't Get So Down on Yourself," largely because the song "has a nice message, a pleasant message," he says. Another favorite of the incurable and seemingly doomed romantic is the dark swing number "Flying," which deals with -- what else -- a Parisian romance.

The singer, who swears he writes his songs lying in bed with his guitar, wrote the majority of the songs on this album in the studio. But it's comforting to note that it takes more than sleek studio production to temper his thoughtfulness.

High on feelings, low on technology

Though "Speak of the Devil" may have come to fruition in a sophisticated studio, Isaak is decidedly and very proudly low-tech. He neither owns a computer, nor does he go online -- in fact, he likens the Internet to air conditioning, both of which he blames for keeping people isolated indoors.

"When I want to talk to someone, I walk over to my next door neighbor's house. He's in his 70s and we talk for a while, we're both happy. I don't understand how you could get that from a computer," he muses and admiringly mentions his brother, who doesn't even own an answering machine.

When not lyrically lamenting lost love, Isaak is a devout surfer living in a low-brow house on the beach in Stockton, California, a moderately prolific actor ("Married to the Mob," "Silence of the Lambs," "That Thing You do") and a milkshake aficionado who likes to gulp down a few after shows. And for someone so in tune with heartbreak, Isaak seems decidedly happy.

"When I think about my job, it seems like a kid's dream job. Just think about it. I sing on stage for a few hours a night, then sit on a bus with my friends and play video games. And when I'm not doing that, I play a sheriff in the movies. Who wouldn't want that?" he asks with a grin.

Isaak's dry humor is best spotlighted on stage, where he sings as much as he talks, urging men to "take the blame" for any problems in relationships and entertaining the packed crowd with stories of his own romantic mishaps. Dressed in a retro fuchsia shantung suit and black sequined shirt, an outfit blending rockabilly kitsch with old-style Hollywood glamour, and hoisting his signature white guitar, Isaak plays for almost two hours, his show an amalgamation of new material and old favorites, such as "Wicked Game."

And when he goes into a rendition of "Forever Blue," his hushed paean to lost love, he proves that few can match his skill at melding song with sentiment. Isaak won't bring your significant other back, but he'll more than help you wallow in your misery.

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