k.d. lang: Recollection

k.d. lang

Before k.d. lang took the stage to duet with Tony Bennett for his MTV Unplugged special, Bennett introduced lang as “one of the all-time greats,” comparing her to Billie Holiday and Hank Williams. It’s no surprise that lang would wish to include her duet with Bennett (“Moonglow”), as well as Bennett’s lofty praise, on lang’s new career compilation, Recollection. While Bennett’s prediction that lang would “go up on the shelf” with the immortals hasn’t necessarily been complemented by lang’s casual recording pace — only two albums of original material in the last ten years — to listen to Recollection is a reminder that lang is a singer’s singer who deserves such superlatives.

Recollection is a career overview, but not a greatest hits record, exactly. “I’m Down to My Last Cigarette” and “Full Moon Full of Love” are MIA, for instance. Instead, the record feels like a collection of lang’s own personal favorites, leaning heavily on her post-“country” years and including a healthy helping of cover songs. Recollection, available in a 2-disc set or an expanded 3CD/1DVD box, is only lang’s second-ever attempt at a compilation, and the only one that takes in her whole career. 2006’s Reintarnation picked 20 songs to chronicle lang’s ’80s output, when she was blending Western archetypes, Patsy Cline worship, and alt-country twang. Recollection barely dips into those years for good measure: Chris Isaak’s “Western Stars” from 1988’s Shadowland and “Trail of Broken Hearts” from 1989’s Absolute Torch and Twang are the only representatives of the era.

Those two songs might at first feel like odd selections — neither was a single — yet both were songs that pointed to the direction lang would fully turn for 1992’s Ingenue, an album on which lang would completely shed the camp and country for a lush, polished balladry that felt artistically honest and was the perfect vehicle for lang’s rich, expressive alto. From Ingenue we get “Miss Chantelaine”, her ironic, lounge-samba nod to gracing a magazine cover, and “Constant Craving”, the album’s smash hit, and it’s a song that still delivers chills (and, one imagines, some healthy returns thanks to that Jaggers-Richards rewrite some years back).

Other highlights on Disc One are a handful of covers, including “The Air That I Breathe”, from her ’97 smoking-themed album, Drag. It’s a song most-associated with the Hollies, but lang’s sultry, breathy vocal sounds more inspired by Olivia Newton-John’s ethereal 1975 version. Also here is a deep reworking of Neil Young’s “Helpless”, the best version of that song not filmed by Martin Scorsese.

The first set ends with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, a song for which lang has gotten much attention of late, peaking with a mesmerizing rendition to kick off the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in February. Perhaps lang’s mastery of “Hallelujah” is enough for a moratorium on further covers of that song, as Jeff Buckley, Bon Jovi, Justin Timberlake, American Idol, etc., have badly overexposed the song. Lang is, however, a singer worthy of “Hallelujah”, although Recollection unecessarily contains two separate takes, as a slower, piano-based version that closes Disc Two.

Elsewhere on Disc One, we get “You’re OK” from Ingenue‘s overlooked 1995 follow-up, All You Can Eat. A greatest-hits album would have selected “If I Were You” (or perhaps “Sexuality”), but “You’re OK” is a more seamless fit within Recollection‘s languorous sonic thesis. A less surprising inclusion is “Summerfling”, her dreamy, nostalgic dance hit from 2000’s Invincible Summer, one of her two albums of original songs from the Aughts. It was an eight-year wait for the next one, 2008’s Watershed, and Recollection contains that record’s first single, “I Dream of Spring”, a lovely song that incorporates both the polished, layered elegance of lang’s modern period and the steel-guitar-laced, Western romance of her earlier years.

The second disc is full of odds and ends, usually one-offs from soundtracks, tribute records, etc. Most of what’s here are covers, which is appropriate since lang is such a remarkable interpreter — she has terrific taste and loves to wrap her voice around gorgeous melodies. Consider her choices here: Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me”, which allows lang to swoop and play with dynamics by slightly exaggerating Joni’s style; Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, tailor-made for go-big virtuosos like lang; and the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers”, a slower, hypontic version featuring some of lang’s most patient, subtle stylings.

While Recollection is a somewhat curious compendium of lang’s career, it does add up to a cohesive statement of sorts. It serves as a testament to lang’s achievement as one of the most impressive singers of the last three decades, and by reevaluating her records to mine her most sumptuous and romantic songs, Recollection is a near-perfect treasury of the artist at her best.

RATING 8 / 10
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