POP MUSIC REVIEW : K.D. Lang Makes You Wonder If There’s Anyone Better

Country music certainly draws its talents from some strange wells. It’s not particularly odd that K.D. Lang hails from Alberta, Canada--in a world where guys from Jersey can pick up a twang, Alberta is plenty country. Rather, the curiosity is in Lang’s past as a college-bred performance artist. Up through the bulk of her and the Reclines’ debut 1987 album, “Angel With a Lariat,” there lingered the impression that singing country was just a curious, calculated lark for her, merely artsy folk going slumming.

But Lang’s torchy ballad reading of that album’s “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray” hinted at a forthright talent, which took root on 1988’s Owen Bradley-produced “Shadowland.” And while Lang’s performance Tuesday night at Anaheim’s Celebrity Theatre still bristled with clever quirks, it also left one wondering if there is a better female country singer working today.

Her 21-song set showed off a voice singers would kill for. While she can bear a striking similarity to Patsy Cline, her pipes also encompass the power and dramatic sweep of Roy Orbison.


But it is what Lang does with that voice that truly sets her apart: Tuesday her phrasing displayed both a jazz singer’s finesse and the audaciousness of an Elvis Presley, blending a subtle shading and control with a willingness to push her voice to lurid extreme if that was what the musical moment called for. She managed a realistic Elvis sneer at one point as well.

Self-awareness isn’t necessarily a prized commodity in a music that is usually best delivered straight from the gut to the throat, but Lang’s aching delivery on the ballads “Trail of Broken Hearts” and “Pullin’ Back the Reins” showed no emotion was lost in first routing them through her brain. And what was gained was a rare control, leaving the impression of her voice soaring, hawk-like, over the Reclines’ evocative musical landscapes.

For a bunch of Canadians, the seven-piece band (including Californian Greg Leisz on steel guitar) was fairly remarkable, playing with a studio precision and a live spark. They and Lang covered a lot of ground, including Chris Isaak’s atmospheric “Western Stars,” Joannie Sommer’s decidedly pre-woman’s-lib “Johnny Get Angry” (with the line “I want a cave man, I want a brave man”), Willie Nelson and Faron Young’s “Three Days” and the Cajun-bent original “Got the Bull by the Horns.”

The packed house was driven to thunderous ovations at two points--once, predictably enough, on a stunning, emotion-drenched version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and on an encore reading of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.”

Where it would be gift enough to the country world if Lang were to pursue a career as a Cline clone, she clearly has other ideas. Her “Walking After Midnight” was a daring re-interpretation. In place of the original’s syllabic bounce, Lang slowed the melody, leaving it full of breath and space, and shaping each word with a jazz player’s skill. To tamper with such a legend so successfully, you’ve got to be something of a legend yourself.

On top of everything else, Lang has faultless taste in opening acts, if Tuesday’s choice is any indication.

Seattle’s four-woman Ranch Romance racked up a couple of noisy ovations of its own with a set of marvelously spirited acoustic country. It’s a rare outfit that can perform an ode to Barbara Stanwyck that employs a whip as a rhythm instrument, and not have it seem a mere novelty tune.

With crisp musicianship on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and stand-up bass, and rich, floating harmonies, the four took command of a range of material from Cline’s “Rhythm in My Soul” to a yodel-crazed rave-up.