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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Magical k.d. lang Has Best Moments With Others' Songs

February 26, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

So how was k.d. lang the singer on Friday night at the Universal Amphitheatre?

Wonderful.

And k.d. lang the raconteur?

Delightful.

And k.d. lang the songwriter?

Well. . . .

OK, two out of three's not bad.

Backed by a crisp, six-piece band and two backup singers, lang showed early in the two-hour set how magical she can be with the right material.

The three-time Grammy winner brought such a convincing edge of heartache and longing to "Cryin'," the old Roy Orbison hit, that you knew midway there was no way the audience wouldn't respond at the end with a standing ovation.

Acknowledging the impact of the song, which has been part of her repertoire since the late-'80s, lang told the cheering fans playfully, "Thank you and good night."

The surprise, given lang's power and bold instincts as a singer, is that she has not found more songs in recent years that serve her as well. A performer with this much talent and heart should be so commanding that audiences ought to be so worn out from standing ovations that they go home feeling they had been working out in a gym.

She was marvelous during a brief sequence when she returned to songs from her cowgirl days, including Joe South's "Rose Garden" and the Patsy Cline hit, "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray."

Most of the time, however, was devoted to tunes from her latest album--songs that for the most part have too little melodic pulse or thematic revelation to convey the array of romantic impulses involved. How strange for an album called "All You Can Eat" to be so undernourished.

It's easy to see why lang, who was never really embraced by country audiences, wanted to move in a wider, more sophisticated pop direction--especially after she recorded a version of Cole Porter's dreamy "So in Love" in 1990 that was as captivating as "Cryin'."

There's a difference between singing great pop songs and writing them, however. She and co-writer Ben Mink came close a couple of times in 1992's "Ingenue" album, especially the lilting cabaret feel of "Miss Chatelaine." There, too, are moments in the new album, notably "This" and "Maybe," where you feel the innocence and intoxication of love. But far from enough moments.

Mostly on Friday, lang proved more involving when she told us between songs about the emotion of the next number than in illuminating that feeling in the song itself. At times, in fact, her skills as a performer seemed so held in check by the anonymous music that you felt you were watching a slow-motion performance.

It might be delicate, but lang the singer needs to have a serious talk with lang the writer. The answer may be to reach out more often to outside material. With a talent this big, two out of three, on second thought, really isn't good enough.

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