If you’re like me, you know k.d. lang primarily as a modern-day torch singer. Since her top 40 breakthrough, 1992’s Ingenue, lang’s smoky tones have served as a sort of high-class version of the balladry that appears on adult contemporary radio. As a pure vocalist, she’s nothing short of amazing. Her full, pure voice is capable of expressing longing and regret, and she also knows when to deliver songs with a knowing wink and nudge. It’s this sense of humor that sets her apart from similar vocalists like Norah Jones.
There are a lot of folks out there who don’t know that lang’s original portal into music superstardom was via the country music world. My initial exposure to her was as such, watching her on a Grammy award ceremony at some point in the late ’80s. This was the era just before the “hat act” explosion led by Garth Brooks and John Michael Montgomery, when stars like Randy Travis ruled the roost of country music. From the jump, lang defied country music convention. First off, she was Canadian. Secondly, she was not a typical, “ladylike” country lady (although her lesbianism was still a secret — she didn’t come out until 1992). Thirdly, much of her music from that time period features her tongue firmly in her cheek. Country radio didn’t know what the hell to do with her, but the emergence of similar acts (like Lyle Lovett), an excellent live show, and fantastic critical response was enough to give her a rabid cult following. Reintarnation (boasting a cute Elvis knock-off cover) is a smart collection of her country-flavored material (ranging from her 1983 debut to 1994’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues soundtrack) that will give post-Ingenue fans a good idea of what lang was doing in the decade or so prior.
My experience with country music is fairly limited, but even for a relative novice, it’s easy to tell that lang’s two major touchstones were Patsy Cline (who gets name-checked on lang’s very first single, “Friday Dance Promenade”, a rarity included on this compilation) and Minnie Pearl. From Cline, she retained the ability to create heartbreaking vocals. I keep coming back to her clear tone, the mark of a true crooner. It would actually be pretty easy to chart her future career path by listening to songs like “Diet of Strange Places”. Take away the fiddles and the pedal steel guitar, and you have an old-styled ballad that could have been a hit for Roy Orbison — a onetime duet partner of lang’s. “Trail of Broken Hearts” is one track that was an early indicator that lang had some serious genre cross-pollination on her mind. Again, the twangy guitar pegs this as country, but the song sails along at a bossa nova-like tempo, and lang’s vocal is pure rapturous balladry.
Beyond the balladry, lang was actually capable of kicking up some serious dust. “Got the Bull by the Horns” is a super-charged rave-up that finds lang fessin’ up about how she likes the “blondes, the brunettes and the redheads too”. You could call the feisty “Big Boned Gal” a precursor to songs like Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman”, with its bare-bones arrangement, prominent fiddle, and take-no-shit attitude. Substitute Nashville for Southern Alberta, and the two songs share the same spirit. Of course, lang has a palpable sense of humor that Wilson and artists of her ilk possess none of — giving her songs a fresher, more fun feeling. Songs like “Don’t Be a Lemming Polka” are kitchy and cheesy (hence the Minnie Pearl references), but lang’s lung power keep them from sounding like jokes.
Even if you’re not a country fanatic (and I’ll admit that the genre maybe takes up a very small portion of my collection), good singin’ is good singin’. Despite the preponderance of fiddles and steel guitars, Reintarnation shouldn’t particularly ruffle anyone who’s aware of lang only in her current incarnation. Whether she’s country, lounge, torch singer, or straight-up pop, k.d. lang is definitely one of the premiere vocalists of our generation, and Reintarnation offers a close-up look at a somewhat lesser known but equally fulfilling period of her career.