You have to give Chris Isaak his due—he only does one thing but he does it very well. Always Got Tonight, his new release on Reprise Records, showcases his trademark sound: reverb-soaked retro pop tinged with his golden, melancholy voice.
Isaak’s been a veteran on the scene for a long time now; his breakthrough came with the major success of his brooding classic, Wicked Game, way back in 1990. Though never achieving the massive fame predicted for him with his honey pipes and good looks, he’s consistently released well-received records for over a decade now, perhaps peaking with 1995’s Forever Blue, a stirring chronicle of heartbreak in a suite of strong songs.
Always Got Tonight proves he’s still got his niche cornered. There’s no mistaking his throwback sound as the rockabilly rhythms swirl throughout the disc. Isaak has always seemed permanently caught in that late ‘50s/early ‘60s romantic croon. He embodies the perfect blend between Roy Orbison’s soaring vocals and the Ventures’ surf guitar workouts.
Accompanied by his fine, long-time band, Silvertone, Isaak ambles in with ease on his new single, “Let Me Down Easy”. It’s a lilting jaunt of a song that shuffles on in with an acoustic jangle that characterizes much of his best work. And he still has that voice, kind of an updated Elvis croon that takes off in the catchy falsetto choruses.
This is his first release in four years since the disappointing Speak of the Devil, and it’s good to hear him back in strong form. His best songs have always been rooted in the heartbreak suggested by the minor key. Always Got Tonight continues that trend, for it is chock-full of these gentle weepers. “Worked It Out Wrong” sets the record’s tone with a kind of broken hearted lullabye to an ex-lover. Check out his words, “Time means nothing when you’re gone, I worked it out wrong.” These sentiments form the emotional landscape of this record.
Throughout his career, Isaak has taken on the persona of the lovelorn loser. The truth is that has always been hard to reconcile with his charismatic looks and success not only in music but on the screen and TV as well. After all, he now stars in his own HBO program, The Chris Isaak Show, a marginal hit. But somehow he pulls this pose off with a combination of self-deprecating humor and modesty. This is reflected on the ironic “All American Boy”, his show’s soundtrack song—it’s also included on this set in a vital rendition.
Isaak is least successful when he tries to mix it up on this record’s title track, a kind of beat box concoction that sounds jarringly out of place here. Maybe he deserves credit for trying something new, but his die has long been cast. When Isaak picks up the pace with “Noticed Your Ring”, it also doesn’t quite gel as well. Chris should face it, he’s a lover not a rocker, even though his live performances are always exuberant affairs.
The album ends with a sequence of Isaak’s best songwriting efforts, especially the closer, “Nothing to Say”. It’s a late night testament to an old flame shaded by Hershel Yatovitz’s pedal steel guitar. Yearning saturates the song and its country flavor makes it all the more delicious. Always Got Tonight returns us to prime Isaak territory: the vintage stories of a scorned romantic.