Sure, every musical artist has great albums and the albums that the fans don't care for much. AC/DC's blockbuster Back in Black, compared to their lacking Fly on the Wall. Led Zeppelin's classic second and fourth albums, later followed by the not-so-classic-but-nearly-monstrous Coda. Even J.S. Bach has the epic Brandenburg Concertos, which every college music major will be forced to listen to until the day they graduate, but it seems unlikely that they will ever know the Coffee Concertos.
Singer and songwriter Chris Isaak suffers the same conundrum. His two highest selling albums, Heart Shaped World and Forever Blue spawned several hits and are considered by many of Isaak's fans to be his best. Sadly, Speak of the Devil, which I believe to be his finest album to date, is grossly ignored.
For those not in the know, Chris Isaak is more then the guy with his own TV series on the Showtime channel. He's a fantastic singer who plays an up-to-date Elvis/Roy Orbison style rockabilly sound, with lyrics that could rival the poetry of T.S. Elliot and John Keats. Yes, he's that good.
Pretty much all of his songs are about love; either gaining it, losing it or looking for it. Now and then his music will take a tawdry turn towards sex, but it's mostly about love and all of its many ranges. Usually his songs are serious, sometimes funny, but always great.
Speak of the Devil showcases all the virtues of Isaak's music and humor with many of his best songs. He sings of being left by girlfriends, finding new girlfriends, and even about being friends with benefits. And the only way to bring these features out, is to discuss the best songs on the album.
The standout song on this album is "Flying", a jazzed-up song about meeting a girl in Paris, falling in love with her and leaving town, wishing he could stay with her. There are two reasons why this song tops "Wicked Game", "Baby Did a Bad Thing" and Chris' other hits. First, this is some of his best singing. Isaak's vocals are as good as ever, but his emotion in this song is pure, distinct and beautiful. Anyone who has felt love before will immediately be drawn in, reminded of the marvel and heart-break that lies in this emotion.
"Walk Slow" is another masterpiece on the album, where Chris is persuading girlfriend who is leaving him to give him another chance. While the whole song is excellent, the ending is the carrying piece of strong singing and excellent instrumental work. Here, Chris breaks into a powerful, nearly desperate cry. "So many many ways I want to tell you, so many many things I need to say." Again, emotion is the key to this upbeat heart-breaker. If you've has been through a break-up, you can relate to Isaak's tone and what he's saying.
The title track, "Speak of the Devil" is truly classic Isaak. Solid rhythm guitar guides the melody about a woman who turns out to be downright evil. Chris' back-up band, the Silvertones, are in full swing here, bringing back nostalgic days where rock was rock; not hard rock, not punk or acid rock, but just pure rock. The wailing guitar solo near the end embodies everything that modern rock has lost. A song you can swing dance to, "Speak of the Devil" should be played at every party and every high school prom. At my high school prom, they played rap music, and you can't swing dance to that.
The next song under scrutiny is "Wanderin'". Once again, a flashback to the older days of rock, when men were men, and they weren't afraid to sing a little high pitched. The subject is a sad one, but the song itself is not. Chris sings about knowing that he's screwed up in life, and it's time to move on. In between the verses, a short and sweet guitar solo is played, a lost art that the blues masters of yester-year used all the time. Optimistic and upbeat the whole way, this song essentially conquers the fear of the unknown.
"I'm Not Sleepy" is the song that showcases some of Chris' humor. While suffering a bout of insomnia, Chris phones up a lady friend for the best cure in the world; sex. This song seems to roll more then rock, but the drums stand out here more then on any other Isaak song to be found, and the soprano guitar tones move everything along at the perfect pace.
Finally, Speak of the Devil concludes with an instrumental track, "Super Magic 2000". While I've always enjoyed the song, I had to see it played in concert to really get into it. Chris came onto the stage dressed in a suit that looked like a disco ball. Right as I was thinking "I need to get a suit like that", he started playing guitar. For most of the concert, Silvertones guitarist Hershel Yavovitz played the lead solos, but Isaak stepped up to the challenge for this number. And while he's no Hendrix, Chris can certainly play. "Super Magic 2000" is a darker, moodier song, and each instrument gets their time to shine.
While it may not be Chris Isaak's most popular album, Speak of the Devil is definitely his best, doing what he's done for a few decades now, but at an amplified level. The emotion is stronger, the rock is robust and colorful, and Chris' voice is at it's zenith. Any self-respecting Chris Isaak fan who doesn't love this album should put Heart Shaped World on pause for a few minutes and give it another chance.
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