by: Young Coconut
In 1996, Chris Isaak released The Baja Sessions. After two breakthrough albums (Heart Shaped World in 1988 and Forever Blue in 1995), fans were primed for more of his melancholy, sophisticated, and soulful sound. With his crack band The Silvertones at the ready, Chris was more than ready to deliver.
If you’re a fan of Chris and his music, you know by now know what this album consists of. The Baja Sessions is a well-sequenced collection of re-recordings of old material, covers, and a few new cuts that were inspired by a vacation Chris took with his band mates in Baja, California that apparently involved a lot of surfing and, I’d surmise, some sort of late night escapades with the local lady folk.
In fact, for those in the know, Chris has done his share of surfing, and so recording an album about Baja made perfect sense. Indeed, surf rock is a popular label often applied to Chris’s music in general due to its twang and its reverb, as well as its nostalgic flair. Always close with his band the Silvertones – Rowland Salley, Kenney Dale Johnson, and new (at the time) guitarist Hershel Yatovitz, you can almost hear Chris saying, “Do you guys want to go surfing in Baja, and record an album of laid back tunes while we’re there soaking up the sun?”
Baja or Bust?
Sounds entirely plausible, right, except that’s not exactly what happened. The album title has always been slightly misleading, since it was technically recorded in San Francisco at Coast Recorders. However, the spirit of Baja certainly does seem to live in the album. The album was produced by frequent collaborator, Erik Jacobsen, who helped define Chris Isaak’s signature sound of mellow dreaminess he perfected on hits like “Wicked Game”, from Heart Shaped World. This is the same sound that caught the attention of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet creator, David Lynch, who has always been a fan of Chris’s work and featured his songs on many occasions, and even Chris himself in the Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me, playing Special Agent Chester Desmond.
One of the highlights for many off of The Baja Sessions is Chris’s take on the incomparable Roy Orbison’s Only The Lonely. With one of the sweetest voices ever to be put on record, any of Roy Orbison’s songs would be daunting for a singer to attempt, but here Chris does the job admirably.
What Do The Fans Think?
Listener opinions have been rather mixed regarding this album in the years since its release, ranging from fans who love the album for its breezy, laid back and tropical feel, to those who feel this was Chris simply putting out the same old same old. Of course, the vast majority of listeners have done nothing but enjoy the heck out of this album over the years, with naysayers being in the vast minority. Upon closer inspection, this album does have its own vibe that distinguishes it from Chris’s earlier albums, although it is clearly in the same vein as, in particular, some of the lighter songs on Forever Blue, which preceded The Baja Sessions.
My opinion has always been that The Baja Sessions is prime Chris Isaak, where the production matches the album concept, with both meshing perfectly with the song selection. Its a near-perfect package, especially if you were already a fan and craving more. The band members are each spot on, as always, and you are instantly transported to where ever great music takes you, with a hint of sadness which is always there in his voice.
For me, I feel…(reviewer closes his eyes) I feel like I’m watching the moon rise from the comfort of my gondola, as I paddle along some lonely shore with only my beautiful girlfriend to keep me company. I think we must be in Hawaii, because there’s a volcano in the background. Looks like Mauna Kea. Chris is there as well, on the shore, serenading us with the band. Our thatched hut is nearby, and comes complete with hydro-hammocks, chilled wine and dessert in a mini-fridge, a large round bed with lots of cushions, NO BUGS, and super fast WIFI. All this waits for us upon our return from our midnight cruise…incidentally, since this is my dream, all manner of take out food is there waiting to be ordered 24/7…it’s just…so perfect. (reviewer opens his eyes) Ahem. I’d say that if you’re a Chris Isaak fan and you don’t like this, are you really a fan? I don’t think so.
Listen to another great cut – “Back On Your Side”…
My Weird Introduction To Chris Isaak
My connection to this album has been a long, slightly complicated one. When I was a teenager, I ordered some albums from Columbia House back when they’d sell you albums for a penny, and The Baja Sessions was one of those albums. I don’t know why I chose it, other than it sounded exotic and I liked the album cover. I knew nothing of his music. As it happened, I broke some kind of clause in the agreement with Columbia House by not paying some hidden fee, and they harassed me for the next year about paying them a bunch of money. I think they even threatened to take me to court over this whole 5 pennies for 5 albums ordeal. (My true intro to Chris was years later on the Wild At Heart Soundtrack…)
Well, anyway, none of this ultimately affected my opinion on The Baja Sessions. However, I will say that I wasn’t at all in the frame of mind to be really appreciating this album at the time, since I was way more into heavier rock bands. This album is the polar opposite of hard rock, so I basically didn’t listen to this album for a long time – years – before I decided to give it another spin. Such is the mind of a moody teenager. Now, as an adult, I can truly understand and appreciate an album like this. For the record, I still do like the heavy stuff! But for a more delicate and refined palette, you can’t really beat an album like The Baja Sessions.
Below is the back cover to the album…I still encourage people to go out and get the actual disc, as no amount of MP3’s can replace the physical package as the artist intended it, with artwork and everything else.
Track Sequence & Production
I will say one last thing here, and that is to return to what I said earlier about the track sequence being utterly complimentary to both the album concept and the production. You have a nice mix of originals and covers, with some originals being from older albums and given a new twist (eg. Pretty Girls Don’t Cry, Back On Your Side, Two Hearts, Dancin’, etc.), while the covers are simply songs that seem to fit well into the vibe of the album (eg. Only The Lonely, South Of The Border (Down Mexico Way), Yellow Bird, etc.). When you hear them all in sequence, it acts almost like a Chris Isaak dream set, with some brand new songs, favorites from earlier albums, and then the covers. Of course, to hold this opinion, you’d have to be a fairly dedicated Chris Isaak fan, but this is what I’m thinking as the album plays.
I’d also say there’s a touch of revisionism here, in the sense that if you weren’t paying attention in the ’80’s when Chris was coming up, you might have missed a lot of these songs when they first came out. And, if you did happen to be paying attention, maybe some of the ’80’s production wasn’t your cup of tea. I can imagine that maybe the band was thinking this when certain tracks were considered for the song cycle. I might guess that for Chris and producer Erik Jacobsen, having these alternate arrangements of older songs like Back On Your Side and Dancin’ with a more subtle approach to the production might have provided some type of satisfaction. The clarity on this album’s production, due in part to the minimalism of the arrangements, is one of the big reasons it is such a pleasure to listen to this album the whole way through.
To conclude, 20 years has done nothing but improve the quality of The Baja Sessions, which I suggest you go out and get if you have always been a fan of Chris Isaak, or, even if you were never a fan, this album might change your mind as there’s simply no arguing with its relaxing, laid back grooves and Chris’s sultry serenading voice.