Thursday, January 16, 2014

Song #473 of 9999 - Wicked Game by Chris Isaak

Song #473 of 9999

Title: Wicked Game
Artist: Chris Isaak
Year: 1989
Album: Heart Shaped World

I was surveying songs that came out in 1989 and listened to "Wicked Game" for the first time in...decades surely. And the first thing I thought was "this just has David Lynch written all over it."

Of course, it has already been in a Lynch film—featured prominently in 1990's Wild at Heart—and I can't be sure whether I subconsciously remembered that or just recognized the traits Lynch finds so appealing. Lynch has always been drawn to this sort of rockabilly on quaaludes sound and Isaak's arrangement is right in his wheelhouse.

The arrangement has a lot of space. There are only three chords (Bm A E), presented in one perpetual progression. This harmonic foundation is provided by bass and drums that, according to an article in Mix magazine, were assembled from samples in the studio from the many performances of the song Isaak and his band, Silvertone, had made over the years. I would never have guessed this—the song sounds like a live recording to me—but maybe this contributes to the otherworldliness of the recording. Combined with Isaak's gentle acoustic strumming and disembodied female backing vocals, the core of the song seems coolly detached from the simmering dramatic performances of Isaak and lead guitarist James Calvin Wissley (whose parts were apparently also spliced together—say it isn't so!).

And those two are the real stars here. Isaak evokes Roy Orbison's "Crying" as he leads us through his own personal five-stages-of-grief reading. Wissley is there to do the actual wailing for him, expertly maneuvering the tremolo bar of his guitar to create a melody composed more of smears than notes. He also provides some beautiful arpeggios that captivate me every time I hear them. Together, they deliver a quietly intense performance that contrasts with the measured groove of the rhythm section. If you haven't listened to "Wicked Game" for a while, you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by how well it's aging.

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