Deckle edge

k. d. lang
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published December 1993 cover story for CD Review)

Its not about being gay. Its not about being a vegetarian. Its not even about country music. What makes k.d. lang unique is her voice. A soaring alto, that rises and falls on command, while moving through genres with the grace of a torch singer one moment and a knee-slapping cowgirl the next. Regardless of lifestyle or musical category, k.d. lang has the rare ability to thrive above the lines that separate music fans, endearing them with self-deprecating humor and luring them with romantic grace. Like Patsy Cline, Barbara Streisand, or even Bette Midler, her's is a voice and presence that survives on impact.

Although she emerged as a country innovator, lang has proven that she is a formidable presence, as inspired delivering slap-stick shuffles as torch-song ballads, sweeping top-40 anthems or swaying waltzes. Together with co-writer and musical partner, Ben Mink, she has created some of the most spirited and original music in and out of country.

Her latest project with Mink is a fitting soundtrack for an adaptation of Tom Robbins' 1970s cult novel, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues, a hilarious story that traces the trials of Sissy Hankshaw, a comically tragic girl, born with two oversized thumbs (picture a couple of dill pickles). As the plot unfolds, Sissy Hankshaw accepts her fate, leaves her small town behind, and turns to a life of hitchhiking (what else?). In her travels she encounters colorful characters in bizarre settings that eventually help her reconcile her own alienation from the world. It is a novel that runs rampant with comedic figures and images while drawing on the pathos in the life of a curiosity.

Selecting lang for the soundtrack was a stroke of pure musical and theatrical syncopation brought about by the movie director, Gus Van Sant. Collaborator Ben Mink recalls the process, "Gus and k.d. met in Los Angeles and through talking to each other it became apparent that k.d. was the right person for the job. There was a definite rapport. With k.d's and my own history in country music [They collaborated on a number of projects, most notably 1989's Absolute Torch And Twang] I believe we had the proper perspective and skills for the job." Aside from the musical aspect there are other common themes between lang and the project. Mink comments on the choice, "There is a similar history in k.d.'s life . . . small town, alienation, travel and finding oneself."

Equally romantic, sexy, eccentric and humorous, this soundtrack highlights lang's singular ability to express both the appealing and unusual aspects of the plot with her arresting delivery. The music also rises to the challenge, successfully depicting the outrageous while lending equal weight to the sensitive discoveries of a young woman. Built on the dated sounds and styles of the 70s, the music includes soaring love songs, jazz-tempered ballads and country rockers colored by wah-wah pedals, disco rhythms, and Hare Krishna chants. Capturing the bizarre, lang and Mink deliver with "Kundalini Yoga Waltz" and the ebullient "Don't Be A Lemming Polka," but counter it with mature reflection in the ballad, "Curious Soul Astray."

Like the plot, the music moves and builds as the scenes unfold. "Myth," a jazz-tinged piano solo, leads into "Apogee" and "Virtual Vortex," two instrumental pieces which use chants, among other sounds, to capture a mood, and then climax with a disco beat in "Lifted By Love." By contrast, the obligatory "cowgirl" songs elaborate as well, notably "Sweet Little Cherokee," a Roy Rogers-like lullaby, the steely instrumental, "Ride Of the Bonanza Jelly Bean," or the rollicking gallop of "Cowgirl Pride."

Not surprisingly though, the songs that remain the most memorable are the ballads. lang has a special affinity for delivering heartbreak and passion with equal poise. "Hush Sweet Lover" and "In Perfect Dreams" are reminiscent of the songs she and Mink wrote for her 1992 release, Ingenue, and play on k.d.'s ability to wrap her voice around gentle melodies.

As then, k.d.'s capacity to balance power and nuance complements Mink's musical vision in an equal exchange of ideas. "Our creative collaboration is fairly complete," recalls Mink. "Generally I'm more tied to the music side and k.d. to the lyrics, but the process evolves differently for each song. It is very intuitive and experimental. Often pieces lead and chronologically influence each other." Ultimately the soundtrack for Even Cowgirls Get The Blues is as droll as it is stirring. For lang, it is a new high in a career, for which, she has been ironically preparing.

Raised on the beef and wheat plains of Alberta, Canada, Kathy Dawn Lang (it is her choice to annotate her name with lower-case letters) arrived as a musical anomaly. In her major-label debut Angel With A Lariat (1987), she established herself outside of formulas, capturing the appeal of country music while embellishing her delivery with an eccentric slant that juxtaposed drama with humor. With her band, the Reclines (derived from lang's biggest influence, Patsy Cline) and British rocker Dave Edmunds in the production booth, lang balanced facetiousness ("Watch Your Step Polka") with fawning tenderness, breaking molds every step of the way.

In 1988 lang went solo for awhile and recorded Shadowland, a stunning tribute to some of country's most memorable vocalists. Together, with veteran Nashville producer Owen Bradley, she affectionately recreated a style originally defined by country divas such as, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee and Loretta Lynn. With layers of lush violins and backup vocals, lang and Bradley produced a collection of gems, steeped in drama, illustrating her adaptability to different vocal styles.

Pushing further, lang rejoined the Reclines and Ben Mink in 1989 and released Absolute Torch and Twang. Another gem, the album brought together the two sides of lang's performing persona, mixing popular country topics; heartbreak ("Trail Of Broken Hearts") and humor ("Big-boned Gal"). At the same time lang came out as a devout vegetarian and was met with conservative disapproval by an old-line industry that, itself, is voice of the farmer and the cattle-rancher. "k.d. has since moved on from the country music norm," observes Mink. "She does what she does. I believe about 10 years ago it [Nashville's treatment of her] might have bothered her, but at this point . . .who knows?" It didn't really matter. Despite the snub of Nashville, lang went on to win a Grammy for Country Female Vocal Performance in 1989.

However, it was Ingenue, a remarkable departure and her most powerful album to date, that pushed lang out onto the pop charts. A sweeping song cycle, Ingenue is lang at a peak. Working together with Mink, lang created a conceptual album that is fired with a fascination for passion. Haunting steel guitars and lush keyboards color smoky ballads as the songs reel off in a heady obsession of unrequited love. The album produced "Constant Craving," featuring a soaring vocal track which brought lang into the mainstream, and won her a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance.

Ironically k.d. lang brings all the unusual pieces of her career together with this soundtrack that could easily have featured her in one of the roles. "k.d. was asked to be in the film but we were on the road with the Ingenue tour at the time," remembers Mink. Even so, the soundtrack is a vehicle that has allowed k.d. to grasp even more of the eccentric, the goofy, and the insane while holding onto her passionate ballads and warm country shuffles. She has raised the ante high, creating a standard that is hard to top (of course that was probably stated when she first arrived in 1987). From here she can go anywhere—jazz standards, folk ballads, maybe an album of polkas, she could even go "unplugged." As Ben Mink concludes, "We all do what we do. There is lots of room for everybody." Rest assured, whatever she does it will undoubtedly resound with her most dynamic trademark—the voice.

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge