If I were dating myself, I’d dump me for Chris Isaak. Assuming the chance came along. His immensely enjoyable and terribly funny series on Showtime might have something to do with it. Or it might be his movie star good looks. Or just his overall demeanor, which lies somewhere between two classic rock ‘n’ roll personas: Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. And his vocal delivery is pretty seductive — I mean distinctive. Essentially, he’s an American Jarvis Cocker, or Morrissey: guys can accept — even understand — their girlfriends hanging posters of him on bedroom walls.
Unfortunately, his latest album, Always Got Tonight, falls short of Pulp and The Smiths on the musical side of things. Not that it’s bad, the worst thing you could say about it is that a handful of arrangements are uninteresting. Take the lead track as an example — with a plodding beat and matching acoustic strumming. There’s a couple of these drowsy tunes, but most of the album works in an Elvis-kitsch kind of way. It’s rockabilly for the late night set, played on big, hallow bodied tremolo guitars.
“Let Me Down Easy” is the lead single and one of the best songs, as sensitive as it is offbeat. It shuffles along with lyrics that introduce Isaak as a down-on-his-luck-hunk, before reaching an irresistible chorus. “I look at you/ I’m just a guy/ I know my place/ but I’ll still try,” he croons, and somehow he makes us believe he won’t get the girl this time.
The title track is an up-tempo song that offers some insight into the origins of Isaak’s girl trouble. Over an infectious funk groove, he half talks, half sings, “Take it easy, tell him that you’ll telephone/ If he calls back, just pretend you’re all alone/ If you love me, then it isn’t really wrong.” Yet, he seems perfectly content to cut his losses and just enjoy the night’s infidelity — probably because it isn’t his. The next song, “Cool Love” brings back the melancholy and the pillow talk, as he rebounds from a messy break-up with someone close to him. “It feels so right being here with you/ just two old friends, but now there’s something new,” is coupled with a chorus of “I’m never gonna let you down ” so we know he’s actually fallen for her, despite the less than honorable beginning.
Two other standout tracks are “American Boy,” the full-on rockabilly theme for the Chris Isaak Show, and “Notice the Ring.” The latter finds Isaak exploring romance with a married woman, much to his simultaneous dismay and excitement: “You don’t gotta fool me/ if you say it’s only jewelry/ I believe you when you slip off the ring.” Oddball instrumentation — there really isn’t enough rock flute these days — gives the tune a playfulness to match the witty lyrics.
Even with a few snoozers sprinkled throughout, Always Got Tonight is still a solid effort.