It’s a wonder a Sun Records worshipper like Isaak didn’t get around to covering Presley, Lewis, Orbison and Cash a couple of decades ago Better timelessly late than never
Not too many months ago, a fairly mediocre Buddy Holly tribute album came out, and the only celebrity cover singer who sounded like he had any real affinity for the source material was Chris Isaak.
You might have found yourself wishing the all-star cast idea had been chucked so Isaak could just cut the songs all by his lonesome.
That wish comes to a kind of fruition on Isaak’s new album, “Beyond the Sun,” though Holly doesn’t figure into this oldies set.
Instead, the pop-rockabilly revivalist is paying highly effective homage to the short-lived, eternally influential Sun Records roster of the mid- and late ‘50s, particularly Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins. He’s a one-man Million Dollar Quartet.
It comes close to feeling like a flat-out Presley tribute album, since there’s no attempt to put Perkins on par with the Pelvis. Elvis songs comprise half of the 14 songs on the standard edition, as well as five out of the 11 bonus tracks on the two-CD deluxe version.
His fixation on the most famous figure in Sun’s solar system isn’t just a late-blooming commercial consideration: For a quarter-century, both the throb in Isaak’s voice and the upturn in his greased bangs have paid inherent and ongoing tribute to the pre-Colonel-Parker King.
By the strictest critical standards, “Beyond the Sun” ought to have more reinterpretation going on to be worth a nod. At times, the covers are so note-for-note perfect that the album resembles Todd Rundgren’s 1970s album “Faithful,” an odd experiment in trying to replicate a batch of rock classics with ridiculous exactness.
But it’d be churlish to complain about his slavishness to the original Sun sound when Isaak was so to the rockabilly manor born.
And, against all odds, he’s self-produced a set of sides that somehow sound like they were cut in 1956 without sacrificing a bit of the increased vibrancy, dynamic range, and loudness you expect out of contemporary recordings. Sam Phillips would be proud, and so will your high-end earbuds.
The more obscure the choices are, the better. That’s one reason to spend a few extra bucks and pick up the two-CD version, since the bonus disc delves further into numbers unfamiliar to all but the most diehard oldies hounds.
The primary CD has a few too many tracks chosen to lure the average consumer, and Isaak really doesn’t bring that much to exhausted standards like “Cant Help Falling in Love,” “Great Balls of Fire,” or “Ring of Fire” — though it is a kick to wait and see whether such a high-voiced singer can hit the very lowest notes that arrive late in Cash’s “Walk the Line.” (He does.)
But even the first disc includes its share of little-known material, like “Miss Pearl,” a fast-driving rave-up from Sun artist Jimmy Wages, who was definitely not part of any Million Dollar Quintet. That one’s so obscure, Wages’ version didn’t come out till decades after he recorded it, and Isaak will delight cultists by making it a cornerstone here.
On top of covering Roy Orbison and Howlin’ Wolf, Isaak also throws two originals into the ring. One, “Live It Up,” is a rockabilly guitar workout, while the other, “Lovely Loretta,” exists primarily to pay homage to Jerry Lee Lewis’ barrelhouse piano style, sequenced right on the heels on Lewis’ classic “Crazy Arms.”
But the main draw is Elvis’ lesser revived early B-sides, which it's a wonder that a Sun worshipper like Isaak didn't take a stab at 20 or 25 years ago. There’s an argument to be made that rock & roll in its purest form peaked just about as quickly as it (arguably) started, with Presley’s first Memphis sessions.
But as much as you might hope these recordings send people back to those originals, the fierce intelligence and musical agility behind “Beond the Sun” doesn’t give folks much reason to abandon Isaak’s own versions prematurely.
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