Chris Isaak, Natalie Merchant

Chris Isaak and Natalie Merchant are, for all intents and purposes, king and queen of the postpunk prom. After all, both seem to have shucked off any native spark of fuck-you energy, each of them eagerly trotting off to more easily digested pastures. When Merchant used her shimmering voice as the 10,000 Maniacs' jangliest instrument, she endearingly twirled above the dangerous precipice between folksy and banal. But since her departure and subsequent solo efforts (Merchant gave two years' notice before leaving the band -- talk about a rebel!), Merchant's gone over the edge. Her voice mysteriously devolved to a plummy bleat, and 1995's Tigerlily was painfully earnest, with lyrics seemingly cribbed from a 16-year-old's diary. Whatever happened to the cerebral Natalie, the one who banged out the weird, poetic likes of "You Happy Puppet"? That was adult, this is adult-contemporary, and the difference is enormous.

The cover of Isaak's new album, Always Got Tonight, shows him gazing soulfully across a moody void, his blue eyes made even brighter by dint of digital technology. With songs previewed on his eponymous cable sitcom (where they were brilliantly caffeinated by guest stars like Shelby Lynne, Sheila E., Green Day and Third Eye Blind's Stephan Jenkins), the album serves up more of his trademark wistful retro-rock, significantly sharper than on recent efforts. (Note the amazing, delicate guitar work by Isaak and Hershel Yatovitz and a refreshing whiff of testosterone -- finally! -- on "Notice the Ring"). If only his songwriting consistently enjoyed the same level of diligence he seems to lavish on his perfect hair and photogenic face, devotees of this brokenhearted Beau Brummell would be much better served.

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