Chris Isaak Beyond the Sun Review in The Washington Post
Chris Isaak has always looked to the past for inspiration. With a rich, sonorous voice that quavers and booms like Roy Orbison, he’s spent the past 25 years establishing himself as the coolest rockabilly musician this side of the 1960s. “Beyond the Sun,” his latest album, wears those mid-century influences proudly.
The “sun” in the album title refers to Sun Records, the famous Memphis label that gave us Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. All four of those rock ‘n’ roll pioneers recorded their early hits at Sun Studios, whose combination of architecture and acoustics created a distinctive, echoing sound. Mr. Isaak has replicated that sound before, but “Beyond the Sun” is his first album to be recorded at Sun Studios itself.
Granted, we don’t need a pitch-perfect cover of “I Walk the Line” to draw a line connecting Johnny Cash and Mr. Isaak. We don’t need to hear him crooning “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to realize how much Elvis Presley has influenced his vocal approach. Mr. Isaak’s entire career has been built upon a re-creation of the music he grew up with, so dedicating an entire album to the artists on Sun’s roster seems a little superfluous.
At the same time, “Beyond the Sun” is a fantastic homage. Recorded in the titular studio with a live band - the same way that Sun founder Sam Phillips insisted on recording all of his clients - it carries the same energy as its source material, mixing the twangy swagger of early country music with the raw oomph of rock ‘n’ roll. Most of the songs follow the same blueprint as the original versions; after all, Mr. Isaak wants to reconstruct these classics, not restructure them.
The album’s centerpiece, predictably, is Mr. Isaak’s supersized voice. He grew up with these songs, and he sings them with confident familiarity, knowing when to croon and when to shout. He hits the high notes at the end of “Now or Never” like a boxer, steadily working his way toward the final punch before delivering a knockout blow, and he hiccups his way through “Great Balls of Fire” with just the right amount of mania, making sure to leave enough room for pianist Scott Plunkett to shine.
There’s an original tune here. “Live it Up,” which blends juke joint guitar riffs with slapback echo, blends so easily into the rest of the tracklist that it doesn’t even stand out as Mr. Isaak’s own composition, which says volumes about the degree to which Sun Records has influenced the singer. He walks the line, indeed.
Still, “Beyond the Sun” doesn’t reveal new creative dimensions for Mr. Isaak. We already knew his voice belonged to an earlier era, and his influences have always worked their way into his songs in pure, unadulterated form. Hearing Mr. Isaak sing these songs is the next best thing to hearing the originals, though, and “Beyond the Sun” reaffirms his status as a torchbearer of bygone genres.
By Andrew Leahey - Special to The Washington Times