When Chris Isaak Took a Vacation on ‘Baja Sessions’
What do you do when you’ve just had another hit album and need to break in a new guitarist? If you’re Chris Isaak, you head down to Mexico with your band and bring your instruments along. That was the genesis of Baja Sessions, which arrived on Oct. 8, 1996.
A year earlier, Isaak released Forever Blue, a brilliant breakup album which gave him, after “Wicked Game,” his second-highest charting hit in “Graduation Day.” But prior to its recording, James Calvin Wilsey, an original member of his backup band Silvertone, left the group. For the tour, he hired Hershel Yatovitz, whose jazz and country influences meshed perfectly with Isaak’s retro-cool rockabilly sound.
Then came a surfing vacation to Baja California, Mexico, where they surfed during the day and jammed in the evening. The loose and laid-back approach worked so well that, upon returning to their native San Francisco, they looked to recreate the feel of those nights in the studio.
It mostly succeeds. Between Isaak’s perfect croon-with-falsetto vocals, Yatovitz’s clean guitar tones and the laid-back rhythm section of drummer Kenney Dale Johnson (who also supplies harmonies) and bassist Rowland Salley, the result is warm and intimate and a great soundtrack for a cocktail party on a summer night.
But of the 13 tracks, only three — “I Wonder,” “Waiting for My Lucky Day” and “Think of Tomorrow” — are new Isaak compositions, and they're solid. The remaining are split evenly between covers and new takes on songs Isaak has previously released. Three of the re-recordings — “Dancin’,” “Back on Your Side” and Pretty Girls Don’t Cry” — were originally found on his 1995 debut, and at least corrects Silvertone’s tin-can production. But the quieter arrangement removes the punch from Heart Shaped World’s “Wrong to Love You” and the slower tempo drags down San Francisco Days’ “Two Hearts.”
The covers are a mostly hit-or-miss affair, with Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” and Gene Autry’s “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)” as the highlights. Arthur Lyman’s “Yellow Bird” and Bing Crosby’s “Sweet Leilani” aren’t necessary, and Dean Martin’s “Return to Me” falling somewhere in between.
Baja Sessions went gold and, at No. 33, nearly matched Forever Blue’s chart peak, a perfectly respectful showing for what was essentially a well-made throwaway project. But the follow-up, 1998’s Speak of the Devil, didn’t make the Top 40, and subsequent albums failed to reach its sales figures.
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