Pop Music : Chris Isaak’s Brooding Sound Meets His Not-So-Serious Mood

Can you picture Edith Piaf suddenly breaking into a tap dance in the middle of a performance? Or Stephen King inserting a page of jokes into the scariest chapter of a book? How about some happy faces in the window of an Edward Hopper diner?

When it comes to mood-busters, though, you won’t do better than Chris Isaak. Thanks to the delayed-action success of his single “Wicked Game,” the singer has suddenly ascended from the bar and rock-club circuit, headlining the Wiltern Theatre on Friday to open a three-concert Southland swing.

But he’s not about to take himself any more seriously than he ever has. No music in contemporary rock conveys a more intense, unrelieved aura of heartbreak and solitude. On the Wiltern stage, Isaak behaved like a Comedy Store hopeful.

Not that the music was an afterthought: Isaak hunkered down with Silvertone, his longtime backing trio, and delivered the goods: compendiums of rock’s melancholy strains from Elvis to Orbison to lonely surf music, offered with brooding sincerity and a panache born of instinctive musical rapport.


Between these studies in solitude, Isaak became a goofy yokel, spinning long discourses with the rhythms of a Tom Smothers. As he rambled along, poking fun at himself and assorted show-business cliches, he’d invariably drag his stone-faced guitarist James Calvin Wilsey into the plot and eventually arrive at a payoff line setting up the next song. Not always.

The Orbison of the ‘90s concluded by rocking out with a stage full of female dancers from the audience who volunteered to Wilsey’s monotone request for “party hippies freakin’,” and then with an interpretation of that great soul-searcher “Wild Thing.”

Isaak’s is a strange approach, and a risky one--in effect subverting his main drawing card. But the ultimate effect was not to trivialize his music, but to distance and enshrine it, making it even more of an icon.