Sharps and Flats

k.d. lang - drag

By Natasha Stovall

Published July 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

people who do such things tend to divide the world into two groups: addicts, and those who get away scot-free. To k.d. lang, those distinctions are fantasia -- she knows that when it comes to love we all have addictive personalities. The hacking smoker, the junkie, the pill-head soccer mom -- to lang they're nothing more than variations on a theme, human manifestations of the obsession that waits inside us all for the right substance, or person, to set it free. "Everyone thinks that they know what they want," she breathes on "Drag," her new album of covers. "But sometimes your drug chooses you."

lang says she conceived of "Drag" as a meditation on how addiction and love mirror each other, but by recording only covers, she also chronicles how many songwriters have found one a useful metaphor for the other. In lang's hands, the subtexts of love -- need, longing, leaving, betrayal -- are pulled to each tune's forefront. On the tip of her tongue, the strains of David Wilcox's "My Old Addiction" become a version of "My Old Flame."

lang makes it easy to understand what these songsmith's (Roy Orbison, T-Bone Burnett, Jane Siberry and others) knew instinctively -- that all obsessions have one thing in common: exhaustive, exclusive passion for their object. "Do you remember our very last kiss? Are you aware that you're terribly missed?" asks lang in a hush on "Your Smoke Screen," and for all the world she sounds like a lover who's been left. But the song begins "the medicine has taken you over, washing away any desire," and concludes with a melancholy "I should have seen through your smoke screen."

From its first notes (the thunderous yet abject reading of Peggy Lee's gem "Don't Smoke in Bed"), "Drag" shows lang in excellent voice, establishing her as one of the great vocalists of the last 20, if not 50, years. She goes into the nooks and crannies of each song, belting, pleading, whispering -- clear as a bell one bar, whiskey-soaked the next -- surrounding herself with glorious instrumentation but never drowning in it. She rises above on every track, lustily leading her mini-orchestra into battle. It's a far cry from last years' dancey "All You Can Eat," but close in sound and spirit to lang's work with Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley. Versatile though she is, lang is at her most potent with classic -- or at least classic-sounding -- material.

As if to convince that "Drag" doesn't have to live up to its title, lang sparks the line-up with a few lighthearted chestnuts, including Les Paul and Mary Ford's "Smoke Rings" ("puff! puff! puff my cares away") and "Drag's" first single, Steve Miller's "The Joker." lang refashions it as a tender come-on with a touch of sleaze, wrapping her sexy voice around her love like a snaky chanteuse. It's the most perfect fit ever. Strange, but it seems like lang, a Canadian, could cover Americana for the rest of her career and never stop stunning. She's just another addict who really loves our peaches, wants to shake our trees ...

Natasha Stovall

Natasha Stovall is a regular contributor to Salon.

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