There’s Ozzfest, and then there’s Merchant & Isaak…

Johnny Loftus

You may have heard about this at Restoration Hardware or in your Spinning class, but here it is again: Natalie Merchant and Chris Isaak – on tour together in summer, 2002. If there was ever a touring equivalent of the word beige, this is it.

10,000 Maniacs was the band that your friend’s older sister liked. She’d travel back and forth from Winona University with her well-scarred copy of “In My Tribe” on the dash of her yellow Festiva; you’d see her in the dining room of your pal’s house at Thanksgiving, talking with their parents about political science. It was music made for coffee tables – safe, non-threatening, and just jangly enough to be edgy. After awhile, Natalie Merchant went solo, and has to date released three albums of milquetoast pop-soul that look and sound like a Martha Stewart production.

Meanwhile, there’s Chris Isaak. A singer, surfer, actor, and all-around nice guy, Isaak has traded on his matinee-idol good looks ever since he bemoaned ever boning Helena Christensen in the video for “Wicked Game.” While he’s always been a serviceable songwriter, and his band has moments of whip-crack sting (“Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”), he’s never proven that he’d like to make anything more than music for an imaginary 50s movie where he’s Raymond Chandler in Gap Khakis, and everyone’s really, really good-looking. Sure, he’s funny. His turns on VH-1’s “Behind The Music” are a hoot, as is his bizarre Showtime series. But what’s even funnier is his concession to a tour like this.

It’s a topic that continually surfaces at the Glorious Noise HQ – usually in the cafeteria. What possesses musicians to embrace mediocrity? Is Rod the Mod still Rod the Mod, even if he’s been spewing out Elton John castoff numbers for the past twenty years? In this case, I’m not sure that Natalie Merchant was ever very adventurous. But she’s always had a strong voice. Why is it continually deadened beneath layers of moribund acoustic blues claptrap? Similarly, Isaak has the ability to rock somewhere inside that chin. But it seems like he’s content to sell his records to the International Coffees set. Even “The Baja Sessions,” arguably his best work, puts too fine a point on the beach album concept. It ends up sounding like Muzak programmed for the Sunglasses Hut.

That’s the main problem with music – and a tour – such as this. It settles for the respectable revenues it knows it will make. There’s no need to take any new steps when the path it’s on is so pleasantly successful. I’m not suggesting that Merchant tour with Nashville Pussy, or that Isaak record an album on the International Space Station with Richard D. James and David Kilgour. What I would like to see, however, is for Natalie and Chris to take a stab beyond their comfortable mediocrity. There’s a place in music for the bland, just as there are corners for black metal, the Bakersfield sound, and Enrique goddamn Iglesias. But the real hope here is that Merchant and Isaak’s tour won’t feature too many happily content couples with their hands in each others’ back pockets.



  1. I think Sheryl Crow falls into this trap too. I have seen her on a few awards shows and tributes wher she does really stripped down, country tunes that blow me away. And yet, she continues to put out overly polished pop albums. I know where she’s coming from, what with the pressure to sell all the time, but I think it’s too bad that someone with such a fantastic voice for country-folk can’t put out an album that best suits it.

  2. One of the best examples of that Phil was at the 2000 Grammys, when Sheryl performed with Shelby Lynne and they did, I think, a Steve Earle song? Can’t remember. But it was just the two of them, with a simple acoustic and slide guitar backup. It was beautiful. But then Shelby (and her sister Allison Moorer) and Sheryl release records that sometimes gloss over their talents as songwriters and singers. Crow’s new album features a great song called “Steve McQueen,” but theproduction is so thick and the overdubs so huge, that you can’t hear what makes the song great in the first place.It’s really too bad.

  3. well, what else to you expect from a driven careerist like sheryl crow? sure, there are moments every so often that give you a glimmer of what she could have been, but she’s so far into the machine that she’ll never turn back. it’d almost be interesting to be able to hear her original debut album that was shelved. it was passed over because it was “too polished” to be put out in the early 90’s. from the snippet i did hear on behind the music, it sounded just as schlocky as the stuff don henely was putting out at that time. hmmm… weren’t they romantically linked back then. pretty surprising that it sounded like his stuff. and then tuesday night music club comes out… wasn’t she romantically linked to one of the guys who was in that songwriting group? hmmm… interesting. throughout her career she’s proved to be cunning and manipulative every step of the way. though, she does have one hell of an interesting voice.

  4. Johnny,The song was The Difficult Kind, a Sheryl Crow original. That and the song she did on TNN’s tribute to Johnny Cash are just fantastic. Yep, she’s a careerist and making tons of loot. That’s exactly what I mean though, Vit. She is caught up in the machine and I think her artistic potential is lost in the mix. She has a great voice and very cool sense of melody. Too bad she hooks up with producers who want to churn out a poppier Shania Twain. Ugh!

  5. Johnny, I know what you mean about the Isaak/Merchant show. Personally I like Mr. Hairdo and with the exception of a couple of weak songs, I think his new album is solid, good music. I was planning on popping in to the Tweeter, last minute, for some summer lovin’ figuring he couldn’t sell the place out. But then the Merchant of Natalie had to pop up and all of the sudden I’ll be dodging Jettas driven by guys who glasses are too small to be functional, driving their girlfriends to the show because they couldn’t adequately express that they think her music is nice. Nice like – let’s just be friends – nice. Nice like – it doesn’t hurt my ears when you play it, but do I have to go sit through it on purpose – nice.As for the Baja Sessions, I think perfecting the beach comber album concept is a good thing. It’s the right album for a summer evening when you don’t want to party like a sixteen year old at Buffett concert or whip out that weird steel drum cd. But maybe I’ve spent too many afternoons at the sun(glasses hut).M

  6. d, i suspect she’s more than caught up in the machine, she’s practically at the helm of it pushing the buttons and pulling the levers. she knows what she’s doing, even at the expense of true artistic expression. she’s not being manipulated by producers, she’s working with them to turn out something more commercial to maintain her sales volume and secure her place in the media.

  7. I must admit this article was well written although somewhat arrogant and self-serving. It is I the rock critic, here to take down all musicians and performers who dare conform and create music for the masses! I usually agree that most artists do their best work early in their career and then gradually fall into the trap of trying to figure out what the fans really want. However, I no longer buy into the theory that the greatest performers/artists never get the mainstream recognition they deserve. There are many bands who I respect because of their spirit and honesty although realistically they don’t have what it takes to go to the next level. I believe the great performers break through and rise to the top, with various successes and failures along the way. Chris Isaak and Natalie Merchant are growing and maturing as people and musicians and maybe that is what is coming through in their music. How will it feel in five years when people find this website (if they can?) and write you off as fucking dinosaurs who are no longer relevant to the pulse of the music industry. Are you willing to look at your own musical bias instead of mocking other performers who no longer fit in your little world as “artists”. If this commercial site doesn’t work out maybe you can network with national public radio so all the intellectuals in the country can espouse your opinions because you are an intellectual. We get too many more fucking intellectuals in the music business and there will be nothing left of any substance!!!

  8. Ah, just like Mussolini: Kill the intellectuals!By the way, I am a big fan of George Michael. A corporate music guy if ever there was one.It’s not a matter of if they sell lots of records. Johnny and I (ready the cannons, I’m about to say it) really dug the last U2 record, which of course sold a shit load. Now, I didn’t like Rattle and Hum, which sold a bigger shit load. Why, because it didn’t feel genuine to me. It seemed like U2 was trying to be something they weren’t: American. I love All That You Can’t Leave Behind because it is U2, now in their 40s and fully entrenched in the corporate MACHINE, doing what they do best. They released an album of perfectly crafted rock songs with Bono’s voice sounding better than ever and the Edge back riffin’ with the Digital Delay. Fantastic!So call us elitists or intellectuals or pig fuckers for all I care. We know what we’re talking about and encourage you to argue, but you’ll lose.

Leave a Reply