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