Described by Tony Bennett as “the best singer of her generation,” k.d. lang is everything the top-selling big-haired divas aren’t. Whereas Whitney or Celine or Leona use 20 syllables when one would do, huffing and puffing to let the people in Row Z know they’re emoting, lang’s vocal performances are models of economy and grace. Her warm tones are pure yet never bland, laced with organic trails of grit and smoke. She doesn’t need to wave her arms about and yodel: once she hits a note, it stays hit. Hearing her after, say, Florence Welch is like leaving a farmyard full of buffaloes in galoshes to spend time in a Japanese Zen garden.
Her 25-year recording career is hereby celebrated with her first career retrospective. There’s a two-CD best of, or a four-disc deluxe package which adds rarities and unreleased live tracks and a DVD of videos and live footage. The two-disc version gives you a lovely selection, balanced between minor hits and eyebrow-raising collaborations, always avoiding the cheese of ‘country’.
It’s an indication of the esteem in which fellow singers hold this woman that she’s duetted with giants of the vocal arts like Bennett and Roy Orbison, as well as Elton John. Her airy, eerie piece with fellow Canadian Jane Siberry, Calling All Angels, is exquisitely light of touch. She may be the only person alive who could have teamed up with Orbison for Crying and not ruined it, or shared Moonglow with Bennett with such unflashy ease.
Constant Craving remains one of the great pining torch songs of its era (oddly, the guitars now sound a bit Johnny Marr), while Miss Chatelaine enjoys melodic twists that defy analysis. The old Hollies chestnut The Air That I Breathe and Neil Young’s Helpless are rendered so astutely you wonder how Susan Boyle might sound if produced by Eno.
Then there are not one but two takes on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. If any song has been devalued and misinterpreted in recent years, it’s this. Yet lang, of course, by understating it, breathes it back to life. More should learn this lang-uage. --Chris Roberts
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