A Guitar, a Voice and a Heartbreak
The Sad, Sweet, Unchanging World of Chris Isaak

Previously on Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

My computer remains broken, shattered, in several pieces and awaiting the assistance of a pot-addled man named Dave. However, despite all the trauma that these weekend columns have visited upon my life (yeah, trauma – wanna make something of it?), I still managed to give good reviews to Dream Theater and the Chemical Brothers. Check the archive, I’m not lying.

Also, my twin brother slept with my twin half-sister before chopping her into several pieces, feeding those pieces to her dog, and then tossing her dog down a deep well. Despite all this, my disgustingly rich uncle (who may also be my father, and who owns half the quaint seaside town we all live in) has hatched plans to kill her again should she somehow return, with a new face and a new name and a long-lost daughter we never knew existed. Meanwhile, I’m becoming increasingly suspicious that my half-brother has been spying on the sly dalliance I’ve been having with his mother, and may be plotting to use his occult knowledge to summon some form of vengeance from beyond. I should watch out for that.

So, just another day.

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On today’s episode of Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

I’ve always said that, if forced at gunpoint to have sex with a man of my choosing, I’d have sex with Chris Isaak. I mean, look at the guy. Who wouldn’t have sex with Chris Isaak?

Apparently, almost everyone, if you’re to believe the lyrics of his songs. Isaak has long been the master of the ’50s-inspired sad-sack heartthrob pose, the teen idol with the great hair that’s constantly getting his heart stomped on by one woman after another. I was half-hoping that, given the success of his Showtime series The Chris Isaak Show, he’d title his new album As Seen on TV, but upon further reflection, that sort of postmodern self-referentialism doesn’t suit Isaak at all. He’s a genuine throwback, a glimmer of an earlier time when a guitar and a heartbreak made a pop star irresistible.

The title he chose for his first album in four years is Always Got Tonight, and that fits right in with the rest of his collection. Isaak has never changed, thank God. He’s always been content to sing the same sad songs the same way, running over the same broken-heart cliches and making them sound like genuine pain. He’s an old-time crooner who just happens to have one of the finest sad-song voices ever granted to a model-handsome hunk. It’s no secret why his records don’t sell – he’s playing to Elvis Presley’s audience, and they’re all busy looking for their King in outlet malls and convenience stores.

Those that get Isaak, though, are in for more of the same with Always Got Tonight, and they should be quite pleased with it. The song titles say it all: “Let Me Down Easy,” “Worked it Out Wrong,” “Life Will Go On,” “Nothing to Say,” and on an on. You’d think he’d get tired of singing about love gone wrong, and more to the point, you’d think that after eight albums, his fans might get tired of it as well. Not gonna happen, for a whole bunch of reasons.

First, there’s that voice. Isaak bends his vocals around his ringing, melancholy guitars and your heart breaks right along with his. He sends it soaring into a flawless falsetto on “Worked It Out Wrong” (for one) and you can’t help the chills that run up and down your spine. He’s a wonderful vocalist, no matter what he’s singing (as his collection of acoustic beach songs, Baja Sessions, proved), but he’s stunningly effective when delivering what otherwise might be a hackneyed weeper.

Second, though the songs remain the same, the trappings often change from album to album, and this one’s no exception. Isaak started out playing minimalist, reverbed guitar-pop, moved to acoustic country-rock and has ended up in platinum-produced rockabilly land, without altering the basic appeal of his simple, direct songs. Always Got Tonight shines in the production department, with bendy electric guitars adding touches of melancholy to “Courthouse,” a string section on “Worked It Out Wrong” and a basic sheen that straddles the too-slick, too-raw line quite well.

Ah, but the music and the production are all just trappings for that voice, and that’s what people respond to. Isaak has always been able to wrap a pop music fan around his little finger with just a few well-placed notes, and the new album is further proof of that. No matter what efforts he makes to convince us that he’s just a regular “American Boy” (the title song to his show, included here), as long as he keeps using that voice, he’ll be anything but typical. Always Got Tonight is another collection of sad, sad songs from Isaak, and if you’ve fallen under his inexplicable spell before, you likely will again.

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Coming up on Tuesday Morning 3 A.M.:

February’s half over? How the hell did that happen?

Anyway, there are some interesting musical distractions coming your way in the next few months, and while none of them smack of Top 10 List quality, they should be worth a listen. Here’s what I’m looking forward to:

On February 26, Neil Finn makes his latest stateside gambit with the first of his one-two Nettwerk Records punch, the 17-track live album Seven Worlds Collide. Also, Alanis Morissette angsts her way back onto record store shelves with Under Rug Swept, featuring the worst single in her short history, “Hands Clean.” I mean, yikes. This is a bad song. Let’s hope the record transcends it, but from early reviews I’ve been reading, it sadly falls short.

March 12 is a big, big music week. First, there’s the new Eels, called Souljacker. These guys have made some of the coolest quirk-pop of the last few years, and the new album contains a song called “World of Shit,” so it can’t be all bad. Also, the Indigo Girls return with Become You, their eighth album. Bob Mould (formerly of Husker Du and Sugar) launches the first album in a trilogy with Modulate. Me’Shell NdegeoCello returns to her funky roots on Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape. The Corrs, who remain highly underrated, give us their first live album, and Jars of Clay release their first self-produced effort, The Eleventh Hour.

Coming in April are two new albums from Tom Waits, called Alice and The Red Drum. Apparently these mark a surprising shift in direction for America’s favorite crazed, growling, freaky genius. Phish puts out the next six volumes of their LivePhish series, and before they do, I promise to post my reviews of the first six. Elvis Costello gives us another cynical rocker (and about damn time) with When I Was Cruel, Wilco finally releases the “too musically adventurous” Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Weezer gives us another half an hour of joy with Maladroit.

Obviously, no Say ZuZu this week – maybe next week? Tune in to find out.

See you in line Tuesday morning.