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Did Lang Come To Praise Or Parody?

March 07, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

Imagine a cross between Laurie Anderson and Minnie Pearl.

Or how about a mixture of Elvis Costello and Patsy Cline?

Somewhere in that puzzle of images, you'll find the real K. D. Lang, a spirited Canadian singer whose lively, highly stylized brand of country music could make her one of the most talked about pop arrivals of 1987.

Lang's first U.S. album--"Angel With a Lariat"--has just been released by Sire Records and she'll kick off a U.S. tour on April 2 at the Roxy.

The music on the "Angel" album is refreshingly varied, ranging from the rockabilly spunk of the opening "Turn Me Round" to the contemporary country of "Rose Garden" (a remake of the old Joe South tune) to the Western swing of the title tune.

Like Anderson, Lang has a performance-art background and she brings a studied, though original presence to her music. Her persona encompasses both the soulful country singing associated with her vocal hero (the late Patsy Cline) and the aggressively unsophisticated warmth of comedienne Pearl.

Lang's frantic stage manner and odd cowgirl-punk look (modified spiky hair, sawed-off boots, Western shirts and torn stockings) have led to such descriptions as "punkabilly" and "the prairie princess."

The question in all of this is whether Lang is saluting country music or parodying it.

One track on the album brings the issue into focus.

To some listeners, "Three Cigarettes"--a song Lang heard on an old Cline album--is a straight-out parody of country music. To others, however, the song--much like Elvis Costello's "Stranger in the House"--captures country's sentimental essence.

"Three Cigarettes" tells about the breakup of a relationship in ashtray imagery. The song begins, "Two cigarettes in an ashtray . . . My love and I in a small cafe . . ." But then a female stranger walks in and there are suddenly three cigarettes in the ashtray. That spells trouble. And sure enough, the song continues, "Now they have gone and I sit alone / Watching one cigarette burn away."

So what is Lang's intent in redoing the song?

On the phone this week from her home in Edmonton, Canada, Lang said she likes songs that can be interpreted on various levels. "On one hand, I sing the song with a sense of humor, which I think Patsy probably did, too, and I'm also thinking about the effects of cigarette smoking. . . . But I'm obviously thinking about the lovesick aspect . . . the way someone feels (in that situation)."

About the larger issue of whether her eccentric approach is more studied or soulful, she explained, "I think performance art plays a big role in what I do on stage, especially humor. I think there is a lot of humor in country music. It's just that it has been forgotten. Go back 20 years and you find a lot of humor in people like June Carter, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and Rose Maddox. There was a great openness and spirit in them.

"At the same time, what I'm doing wouldn't work if it wasn't coming from my soul. It's not just some intellectual process. I love country music. . . . I grew up listening to that music and it is a part of me . . . part of my background."

Kathy Dawn Lang, 25, has already caused a considerable stir in Canada, winning the equivalent of the Grammy in 1984 for best new artist.

Born and raised in a small Alberta farming community, she grew up with a fascination for music. She listened to the Broadway show albums of her parents and the rock records of her brother and sisters.

Lang studied music in college, but began drifting toward painting and performance art. Bored with that, she began listening to country music. During this period, she played a role patterned after singer Cline in an Edmonton theater production.

She became so engrossed with the Cline character that she became totally engulfed in country music. There were even hints in some newspaper profiles at that time that Lang felt she was the reincarnation of the late singer.

By 1984, she had formed a band, the Reclines, and put together an energetic stage show that drew raves around the country--and the interest of U.S. labels. After signing last year with Sire, she and the band went to England to make the album with producer Dave Edmunds, the British singer-guitarist with a strong feel for country and rockabilly.

In the LP, Lang touches on a variety of emotions--from the deep-rooted, bluesy laments of Cline (who was the subject of the movie "Sweet Dreams") to the kick-up-your-heels zest of Rose Maddox, a colorful country veteran whose influence has been cited recently by several young rock-oriented country singers.

Lang is pleased that her shows have attracted both young rock fans and older country ones. But she admits the country music establishment is sometimes confused by the colorful, almost manic nature of her concerts.

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