Chris Isaak's "Silvertone" is not only one of the most striking debut albums of the year, it is also one of the few albums of the '80s offering a thoroughly contemporary rock sound fashioned from America's musical roots. While the album cover depicts Isaak as an Elvis-style rockabilly, Isaak describes his music as "more a mixture of western and American pop."
"Silvertone's" sparse, echo-laden production and guitarist James Wilsey's twang-heavy guitar work do recall the rockabilly style. But Isaak, who plays the 9:30 club Saturday, is no wild rock 'n' roller evoking wild parties, fast cars and loose women. Most of his original songs are moody evocations of the bleak side of romance. Is Isaak as haunted as his music suggests?
"Yes," he says, "but I feel everyone else has it in them too. On my record, I'm conscious of the fact that I like sad moods and ballads, but I've tried to mix it up a little with some more energetic material. I don't want people listening and feeling depressed. There's stuff that sounds very dark, but I'm not that way all the time. You can't brush your teeth in a state of sorrow."
Isaak admits to having been attracted to sad songs even as a child in Stockton, Calif., where the pained confessions of Hank Williams and other country-western singers turned his ear. Not surprisingly, Roy Orbison, the master of melodramatic balladry, is one of Isaak's favorite singers. Isaak also is fond of Mexican music and is currently trying to master the accordion because, as he puts it, "It's got that melancholy feel."
As the sleek sound of "Silvertone" proves, however, Isaak is no roots revivalist. He also admires the textured guitar sounds of new wave favorites such as U2 and the Cure, although the emotional substance of English bands bothers him.
"I don't like the kind of sadness some of the British bands are into," Isaak explains. "They're not sad, they're depressing. When Roy Orbison sings, it doesn't depress me. It's a beautiful thing because he's expressing sorrow for a lost love. When the English sing, it's like they've lost purpose. There's a difference."
Isaak's singing on "Silvertone" is so emotive and controlled that it seems surprising he only began performing in 1980.
In 1979, while he was going to college in Japan and working there as a tour guide, he says, "there was this Elvis song that really knocked me out called 'I'll Never Let You Go.' I liked the song so much that I sang it and sang it. One day, the Japanese lady that lived downstairs from me started singing it too. She couldn't speak English. She had learned it phonetically from hearing me. That's when I decided to give singing a try."
Isaak returned to the States, settling in San Francisco where he played coffee clubs, bars and parties, while band members came and went. Finally, he joined forces with guitarist James Wilsey, whose imaginative playing is one of "Silvertone's" attractions, and producer Erik Jacobsen, responsible for the Lovin' Spoonful's hits, got involved.
"He started coming to the gigs early on and impressed us," Isaak says. "At that point, I was impressed by the simple fact that he had a car. Then somebody told us he had done the Lovin' Spoonful. I said 'That's great. Who are the Lovin' Spoonful?' Then I got their records and thought, 'That's not exactly how I want to sound, but I'll see what this guy's about.' "
Since "Silvertone's" release on Warner Bros., Isaak has been busy whipping his band into shape with extensive club appearances in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
"Im just trying to avoid being fired right now," Isaak admits. "I don't want to be dropped by my label. I want to sell enough records to make another record. I also want to make records that please me. If I can do those things, it'll be hip."