by Lee Sinclair
Only someone like Chris Isaak could pull off an album like his latest release, Beyond The Sun. Not only is it mostly covers of old songs from the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, but he also mixes well-known songs that people are still listening to with obscure titles that are seldom heard or even remembered.
Doing covers of mega hits is risky. The reason they reach that status is because the singer did such an incredible job. Sure, the song has to be great to begin with. But it’s the singer who puts the final polish on it and launches it into the stratosphere. So a successful cover needs to be just as good or even better. Not only that, if the new version is too similar to the previous one, it might be dismissed as a pale imitation. And if it’s too different, it may not have the qualities that made the song so popular.
Covering a forgotten song may seem less risky until you ask why it didn’t become a memorable hit. Was it caused by something lacking in the song or was it the person singing it? It could be it’s a great song that simply wasn’t discovered by the right singer. Or it could have been a case of bad timing. Will a new version of it by a new singer be an enduring hit or will it once again fade away, back into obscurity?
Add to that the problem of doing old songs from the Fifties and Sixties. How do you breathe new life into them so you can reach today’s younger listeners and not just those who lived through that time? We’re living in a dramatically different world. It’s changing so rapidly that different generations no longer have common histories to help them relate to each other. This creates a major hurdle when you’re trying to revive songs from a past generation to share with a new generation. These new listeners need to feel an emotional connection to the song, just as the previous generation did.
By now you may be wondering, “What the heck was the man thinking when he recorded this album?” The simple answer is that he loves these songs and has a genuine affinity for the music from that time period. If you don’t believe me, I dare you to pick out the two songs on the deluxe album that he wrote himself—and don’t cheat by looking at the credits. Chris Isaak grew up listening to this music, and it has continued to influence him even as he pursued a successful career in a modern and evolving music industry. It’s this emotional connection that makes all the difference. If a singer doesn’t have a feel for the music and words they’re singing, they end up mangling a song when they try to put their own stamp on it. Or as I think of it, they put their own stomp on it. But this album has an authentic early Sixties feel to it because of Chris Isaak’s heartfelt connection to the music.
Yet there is a freshness to the songs on Beyond The Sun because he’s not trying to imitate anyone else. Chris Isaak has a clear sense of who he is and has always traveled his own road, making his music his way, regardless of what was popular. Ironically, after years of never following trends, for once, his timing may be spot on because there has been a recent upsurge of interest in the music from this time period. But irrespective of that, he remained true to himself with this album. In an interview with Jesse Skinner for Toro Magazine, Chris Isaak said, “I didn’t want it to sound like Johnny Cash or Elvis Presley or Orbison. I wanted it to sound like there was another Sun artist that Sam Phillips had worked with because Sam Phillips was, and is, my idol.”
The other reason he can make an album like this work is his voice. Not many people can sing like Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, AND Johnny Cash. A singer has to have both the vocal range and adaptive tonal quality required to cover songs by all these diverse singers. Chris Isaak’s ability to hit the high notes like Roy Orbison or add resonance to his croon like Elvis Presley has always been acknowledged. On this album, he displays even more versatility, especially in his less frequently utilized lower range, which can be deep, full, and gritty. In fact, when he sings “I Walk The Line,” you might think he’s channeling Johnny Cash. How else could someone with his amazingly high falsetto ever sing that low?
But I’m not sure that even Chris Isaak could have pulled it off without his longtime band, Silvertone. Not only did they bring their years of experience playing together to this album, but they practiced the songs almost obsessively so they could play them spontaneously and seamlessly as a group when they recorded them. They, too, love this music, something which is blatantly displayed during live concerts. When the band dives into a song like “Great Balls of Fire” and Scott Plunkett’s piano starts smoking, they’re all having more fun than should be legally allowed in public on a stage.
Their enthusiasm was an essential ingredient to making this a great album. Chris Isaak may have his picture on the front of it, but the whole band is on the back.
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If you’d like to read more about the influence this music has had on him and about the making of this record, Chris Isaak has written a Kindle Single called Beyond The Sun…The Story. It’s written in a very personal style which reveals the guy behind the singer/songwriter/entertainer.
Most of the songs were recorded at Sun Studio in Memphis, where they were originally recorded, and were cut using many of the same techniques.
More information about the making of this album, including some of the specific technical details, can be found in Electronic Musician’s feature article on Chris Isaak called Labor of Love.