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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

k.d. lang

Watershed (Nonesuch)

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Five years ago, Tony Bennett and k.d. lang had completed A Wonderful World, a tribute to Louis Armstrong, when an interviewer on a radio show asked Bennett about his duet partner. He said, “In my opinion, she’s the best singer since Judy Garland.”

After a pause that brought surprise from the interviewer and surprised laughter from lang, he added, “Well, it’s true.” And so it is, but lang has shared with Garland, and with Bennett, an uneven artistic instinct, as though her ability to sing anything has left her helpless to make the smartest song choices. Was it necessary to turn away so completely from Patsy Cline country on 1992’s Ingnue? Did Drag, her 1997 album of cover songs about smoking, have to feature Steve Miller’s “The Joker” and Air Supply’s “The Air That I Breathe”? Watershed indirectly answers these questions: It’s her first album of original material since 2000’s Invincible Summer, and her first album as a producer, so presumably these are songs she really wants to do, presented the way she wants them to be presented.

And she shows great restraint and taste. Quite classicist and minimally camp, Watershed finds lang putting a more serious face on many of her past stylistic turns. “I Dream of Spring,” for example, gently drapes a folk ballad in pedal-steel guitar that could have come off her earliest albums and a string section from her Ingnue days.

“Coming Home” likewise seeks the common ground between articulately baroque lyrics and dexterously down-home banjo; “Sunday” brings her affinity for jazzy backdrops together with a fondness for Burt Bacharach playfulness; and “Upstream” slips her closer to the work of late-period, genre-crossing Elvis Costello.

To a degree, she’s showing off her musical range, but her singing is as plainly expressed as it’s ever been. She holds herself in check, never overwhelming a song with her pure vocal talent. When she ends Watershed with “Jealous Dog,” a spare and beautifully rough first take, it demonstrates that she can be as understated as a mentor like Bennett.
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