Chris Isaak makes a pilgrimage to Sun Studio to record the songs of his heroes. The music-loving world smiles.
In a recent interview with Billboard, Chris Isaak noted that if somebody asked him, “What do you know about better than anything else?,” he’d respond with, “Sun Studios.” He then added, “Those guys -- Elvis, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, that's what I'm made of. That's in my DNA.”
That Isaak’s music has been shaped by those artists is no surprise to anyone. Their imprint is all over his career. Isaak’s voice ranges from the angelic falsetto of Orbison to the country sneer of Elvis. His guitar riffs are often drenched in glorious reverb, much like those of Scotty Moore. And even his pompadour and garb look straight from mid-century Beale Street. Isaak isn’t just influenced by the classic Sun Studio roster -- he’s their west coast offspring.
Isaak’s statement to Billboard, though, is revealing in that it underscores an equally pertinent fact: beyond being influenced by Sun Studio and its artists, Isaak actually possesses a scholar’s knowledge of the studio and its legacy. Not only is Isaak familiar with how those classic Sun tracks arrived at their sound, he’s also familiar with the more obscure artists that recorded at Sam Phillips’ famed studio.
For these reasons, Isaak is particularly equipped to take on his latest project, Beyond the Sun. Largely recorded at Sun Studio, the album features Isaak’s versions of some of rock n’ roll’s greatest songs by artists who got their starts at Phillips’ studio. Relying on his knowledge of the equipment, techniques, and arrangements used in the recording of these songs, Isaak is able to render versions that are both faithful to the originals yet unique to his own artistic vision.
Indeed, one of Isaak’s main objectives in making this project was to present the songs as authentically as possible, and he succeeds overwhelmingly in that quest. The arrangements are true to the originals and, combined with Isaak’s voice, make for an uncanny listening experience. Isaak naturally sounds like Elvis, so Presley’s songs -- such as “It’s Now or Never” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” -- sound eerily like the King updating his own material with the benefit of modern recording technology.
This, however, does not mean that Isaak does not inject his own flourishes into the songs. On “Trying to Get to You”, for example, he pushes the piano to the front of the mix, giving the track more of a shuffle. Perhaps his rationale for doing so is the fact that Elvis was playing a piano during the recording of the original, but since it was not miked, it’s only faintly audible. Isaak, being a Sun aficionado, would no doubt know this, and his version provides an intriguing insight into what the original might have sounded like if Elvis’ piano had had a microphone on it.
Elsewhere, Isaak takes on classics by Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. As he does on the Elvis tracks, Isaak captures the spontaneous abandon of early rock 'n' roll. His version of “Great Balls of Fire” explodes with the exuberance of the Killer’s original, his voice swerving with sexuality while pianist Scott Plunkett pounds away in the crazed style of Lewis. On “Dixie Fried”, a fiery classic by Carl Perkins, Isaak shows why Perkins is revered as a rockabilly icon, the twangy guitar and thumping bass perfectly fusing together boogie and blues. And on “Walk the Line”, Isaak manages to push his voice down just far enough to capture the low notes of Cash’s bass-baritone.
Where Beyond the Sun is most interesting, though, is when Isaak covers the lesser-known artists who recorded for Phillips, such as Jimmy Wages and Warren Smith. Wages recorded for Sun in 1956, but, sensing a lack of commercial appeal, the studio declined to release his music until 25 years later, when it was lauded for its raw, gritty brilliance. As for Smith, his version of Roy Orbison’s “So Long, I’m Gone” may have been a hit had Phillips not invested all of his money at the time promoting Lewis. In representing these artists, Isaak gives a more complete picture of the Sun Studio story.
Throughout each of these tracks, Isaak and his band focus on the details that made each of these songs unique and helped to create the Sun sound: the slapback echo, the freight train rhythms, the blistering guitars tones, the deep bass sounds. No detail has escaped Isaak’s studious ear.
Beyond the Sun functions on numerous levels, then. For fans of Isaak, it gives a unique glimpse into the artists and musical influences that have shaped his career. For fans of Sun Studio, it’s a brief, concise history of the immense impact of Sam Phillips’ legacy. But in the end, Beyond the Sun is just an incredibly fun album -- one that every fan of blues, country, and rock should embrace with glee.