By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Isaak sounds like Roy Orbison, looks like Chet Baker, wants to be Elvis Presley--and, as usual, the equation adds up to gloomy, romantic, somber, moody rockabilly-pop that depends as much on sheer atmosphere as upon the words crooned. And damn it all if it doesn't work against the concept: the guy isn't so much like a walking waxwork, a period piece, as much as an honest-to-God throwback who--like, say, fellow roots-revisionist Marshall Crenshaw, Buddy Holly to Isaak's Orbison--adores the rock and roll of the 1950s because it allowed for unabashed romanticism without the sort of irony so many '90s songwriters hide behind.
Crenshaw and Isaak's are love songs sung with straight faces and broken hearts, optimism and despair fighting for equal space--the "smiling faces of the lucky ones" taunting the guy whose woman done left him, watching "the rainbow that leads into the darkened sky," trying to remember what was so good about what went so bad. "I know that love can sometimes change, but in my heart I feel the same," he sings, telling his gal that "things go wrong, but I still love you." "I Believe," he calls one song; "The End of Everything," he calls another.
Isaak picks up where Orbison left off 30 years ago, writing love songs that are so fatalistic and final, but always with a tender touch to mask the underlying awfulness of it all. In every song, Isaak waves bye-bye to some woman, wipes a tear from his eye, then hopes she'll turn on her heels and come running back. The only thing is, contained in that sad and lonesome howl of a whisper he calls a voice, Isaak always seems to understand that even as he bids farewell to his baby, she's already out the door and in someone else's arms.
Laughing at their own in-joke, Sonic Youth ushered in the revolution 13 years ago from the Lower East Side, then stuck around long enough to watch their messy handiwork become the lexicon for successive generations--beauty forged from an ugly sound, pop songs carved from discordance, a symphony fashioned from guitar distortion and herky-jerky drum beats, melody manufactured out of crashes and static and screams and chaos and feedback. Thurston Moore's "solo" debut (with SY's Steve Shelley on drums, and guitarist Lee Renaldo "recording" two tracks), then, is more of more of the same--the guitarist-singer (well, guitarist-speaker) constructing as he destroys, the dopey words always background fodder to an orchestrated noise that terrifies and thrills as it goes everywhere and nowhere at all. After all this time, it only sounds sloppy.