Who is Chris Isaak? The crooner of heartbreak ballads, a fashion icon, a comic television host, or all of the above? He’s always been a hard target; I’ve never known how to assimilate his act. It’s great, pop-oriented stuff, but I don’t know when to take him seriously. His best songs are mildly eerie, a fact not lost on filmmaker David Lynch. Lynch is known for his unsettling and sometimes violent motion pictures. And Lynch was Isaak’s ride to the top when he put two of the singer/songwriter’s compositions into the soundtrack of Blue Velvet. Lynch would again feature Isaak music in Wild at Heart, a celluloid freak show featuring Nicolas Cage. Stanley Kubrick incorporated a song by Isaak into the soundtrack of his Eyes Wide Shut, another disturbing film.
That Isaak’s music fits with such darkness is confusing, due to the wholesome Ricky Nelson image Isaak has fashioned over the years. Ricky Nelson...or possibly Buddy Holly or even Elvis. There is in Isaak a resemblance to all three.
Isaak, by the way, can do a spot-on impersonation of a young Elvis. Most of the Elvis impersonators work the King’s later years, the bloated flashy jump-suited Vegas era, because that is easier to mimic. But Isaak’s ability to sing with the acrobatic grace of young Elvis singing “That’s All Right” served him well when he went to Sun Studios in Memphis earlier this year and stood in the same place as Elvis and recorded something of a tribute CD, an album of covers by the old masters: Cash, Lewis, Orbison, Presley, and Perkins. It’s the comfort food of music, sure-footed and authentic. Finally, a Chris Isaak I can believe.
CHRIS ISAAK: Belly Up, Saturday, November 26, 9 p.m. 858-481-8140. Sold out.