Like irritating secondhand smoke, the return of old-school manliness — cigars, cocktail music, martinis — has seeped into pop. Record-store bins are stuffed with repackaged collections of ’50s and ’60s lounge background music, now marketed with an isn’t-it-campy wink. There are even albums to smoke to: Four volumes of Cigar Classics equate nicotine, for reasons that are cloudy at best, with everything from John Coltrane’s ”Nancy (With the Laughing Face)” to Rose Royce’s ”Car Wash.” Great music truly smokes, but this is ridiculous.
Having blossomed from punky cowgirl to avant-cabaret adult, k.d. lang should be beyond such retro-kitsch revisionism. Or is she? Just as she’s come into her own as a singer and songwriter, Drag unexpectedly leaps aboard several bandwagons at once. It’s a set of standards from the pre-rock pop era and classic-rock years. Not merely any standards, but songs that, in some way, refer to smoking. Drag is so high-concept you need a ladder to hear it.
Thankfully, Drag isn’t nearly as hokey as it appears on paper. The album intensifies the mood of unrequited ardor that ran through lang’s last album, 1995’s All You Can Eat, this time with songs that use nicotine addiction as a metaphor for an unhealthy relationship. Some, like ”Love Is Like a Cigarette” and the dreamily morose ”My Last Cigarette,” state that theme explicitly. Jane Siberry’s ”Haint It Funny,” a tale of a lover’s departure that reads like a short story, mentions cigarettes only during its neat-twist finale. ”Theme From the Valley of the Dolls,” on the other hand, has no mention of smoke whatsoever but extends the album’s motif of personal confusion (and its ’60s-pop sensibility).
The smoke tie-ins may be strained, but the music never is — it has its own lemony twist. Rather than use the stuffy supper-club orchestrations heard on standards albums by the likes of Natalie Cole, lang and producer Craig Street have fashioned spare, cushiony settings that, like Street’s work with Cassandra Wilson, inhabit a lost world — here, between smoky cabaret, brush-drum jazz, and honky-tonk. The pina-colada-smooth ”Smoke Dreams” feels like a Holiday Inn lounge combo on a good night, while ”My Last Cigarette” and the Les Paul-Mary Ford oldie ”Smoke Rings” deepen the flavor of lang’s arch country albums. Every so often, a bebop trumpet or sirenlike guitar loop wafts in. A choir-and-swing-swamped rendition of the Peggy Lee-associated ”Don’t Smoke in Bed” simulates the syrupy feel of postwar, easy-listening pop. But even there, lang’s simmering delivery keeps camp at bay, especially during the breakup song’s climactic kiss-off/warning.
What the songs and arrangements share is, naturally, lang’s expressive voice, which is never better than when she’s constantly craving. Lang sings with delicacy and control, rarely emitting her showboating wail. (When she does, in the blowsy ”Till the Heart Caves In,” cowritten by Roy Orbison, the effect is jarringly out of place.) Occasionally, lang blands out and sounds disconcertingly like an older, better-fed Karen Carpenter. But she also pulls off a remake of Steve Miller’s ”The Joker” (”I’m a midnight toker”), making it less coy and more sensual than the original.
It’s a mark of lang’s growth that Drag would’ve been unbearably shticky had she made it a decade ago. It isn’t, yet it isn’t a groundbreaker, either. All You Can Eat was a cohesive, low-key set of love-song originals, some unabashedly lesbian. Did the album’s commercial flop send her into retreat, back to a no-risk disc of remakes that downplays sexual specifics? For a woman so at ease with herself that she played a singing gay-bar waitress on Ellen, Drag is a small step back. But at least it’s done with elegant footwork. B+