Chris Isaak: First Comes the Night

Rockabilly's greatest modern ambassador goofs off, with mostly fun results

Credit: Courtesy of Chris Issak

Reinvention must be a challenging proposition for Chris Isaak, who's long branded himself the suavest and most convincing Elvis-style crooner alive. His impressive last set, the 2011 Beyond The Sun, simply cut to the chase with a set of classics from Sun Studio-era Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and more. Alongside his valiant attempt to add gravitas to the judging panel of this season's X Factor Australia comes his latest, a nouveau-retro Nashville session that dials back that gravitas instead.

This is an interesting development. Isaak's best work has always been delivered with a sly wink and/or a touch of Lynchian surreality – convincing enough to spur David Lynch to use the singer's music in Blue Velvet and cast him as Special Agent Chester Desmond in Twin Peaks. But "Don't Break My Heart," a cha-cha driven by a TV-game-show organ riff, verges on full camp, while "Dry Your Eyes" informs a lover "Last night you called his name/You did it before when you came." Sun Records' Sam Phillips would never sign off on that kind of language. And Isaak has never sung anything quite as wicked as "Down in Flames," a rockabilly strut with Jordanaires-esque backing that hip-swivels through a death wish ("Kennedy got it in a Lincoln/Caesar got it in the back"). Co-written with Nashville pro Gordie Sampson – see Ashley Monroe's recent "Bombshell" and Willie Nelson's "The Songwriters" – it's one of a handful of songs with a top-shelf Music Row pedigree.

Overall, it's a fun but hit-or-miss affair, and in the end the most compelling songs are played straight. See the Ernest Tubb-style bonus cut "Keep Hangin' On," and "Kiss Me Like a Stranger," awash in brushed snares and Bigsby-bar vibrato – a ballad that, true to form, conjures a 1950s dream sequence, right down to the scent of Brylcreem.