k.d. lang leapt out of her native Canada in 1987 wearing a cowboy hat but mixing musical styles with the tony determination and slick marketing of an ambitious new fusion restaurant. Since then, lang has operated as the very model of the bankably progressive adult pop artist.
She made "Shadowland" in 1988 with the renowned arranger-producer Owen Bradley, who had worked with Patsy Cline; an impressive yet creepy collection, it was like a Nashville exhibit at the Louvre. She recorded a masterpiece duet of "Crying" with Roy Orbison shortly before he died. With her less museum-quality 1992 single "Constant Craving," she scored a big hummable pop hit. Later she produced a daft torch album inspired by cigarette smoking, cleverly titling it "Drag." In 2000 lang renovated, apparently just for the hell of it, the softly sunlit sounds of surfy '60s Los Angeles flip-flop pop on "Invincible Summer"; one song was a memory of frolicking on beaches "with Kennedy flair."
Throughout her glittering and slavishly media-approved career, lang has prospered, continuing to render her name in lowercase letters and often adoring the sensuously whirring sound of her own voice. With "Hymns of the 49th Parallel," she adds something new to her accomplishments: a great album.
It is a collection of songs by canonical pop Canadians such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, rounded out by work from brilliant younger north-of-the-border songwriters including Ron Sexsmith and Jane Siberry.
Like all her singing here, lang's interpretations of Young's "After the Gold Rush" and Mitchell's "Jericho" lavish a scrupulously close, nearly classical concentration on the songs' melodies. Although she powers strongly through sections of Sexsmith's "Fallen" and transitions into the phenomenal bridge of Siberry's "Love Is Everything" like a Ferrari slipping up into overdrive, lang never oversings or indulges in showoffy vocal ornamenting. Such choices, given the lucid incisiveness of the drumless arrangements played by lang's three-piece backing band and enriched by the spectacularly restrained strings of arranger Eumir Deodato, are revelatory.
While the world always has buzzed about lang's voice, only now might a listener fully appreciate its remarkable tonal dimensionality and unobstructed phrasing. Accordingly, lang is sometimes able to uncover qualities apart from those of the songs' more famous versions. The drinking metaphor that supports Mitchell's "A Case of You" never has been so resonantly exposed, and the famous back-porch prairie vibes of Young's "Helpless" expands, within lang's interpretation, into a vaster land.
That pop universality, in fact, of the so-called "songbook" collections popularized in the past by veteran singers like Ella Fitgzerald and Frank Sinatra were lang's inspiration; she says she developed the idea of a collection of all-Canada songwriters while working with Tony Bennett, with whom she recorded the duet album "A Wonderful World" in 2002. The funny thing about this smart choice is that it depends on a conservatism lang previously has fought, meeting with consistent ink if not always artistic success.
On "Hymns of the 49th Parallel" she does what great female country singers have always done, which is to sing other people's songs transcendently well and with ripping emotion. In lang's case, it has led to an album of triumphant Canadian soul music.