Torching The Twang

k.d. lang was almost buried on the lone prairie. Now she's caught fire with a hot new album.

But for a country-music anomaly like lang, that was nothing new. From the start, her relationship with the Nashville establishment was a slugfest. lang "came out" last year when she began answering questions about being gay, a move that shook many in livin', lovin' Nashville to their homophobic roots. A business that saddles its female figures with a bouffant-and-starched-skirt image found lang just too sexually complicated to handle. Banned by the small minds at the Grand Ol' Opry, this "big-boned gal" (the title of one of her songs) has made an art of keeping people -- fans or not -- off balance.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't like shocking people," she says in a surprisingly quiet voice. Living in L.A. has nearly extinguished lang's once-noticeable Canadian accent. "But none of it is contrived. I do live an alternative lifestyle, and I'm vocal about my beliefs. I also live a lot of contradictions; for example, my whole country career -- I just didn't fit."

lang used to walk a thin line between revering and mocking country music. In a new compilation of her television appearances and music videos called Harvest of Seven Years (Cropped and Chronicled), lang often bounds across the stage, swinging her skirts and kicking her heels. In most of the videos, she's dressed in a variation of her then-standard costume of outlandish, rhinestone-encrusted shirts, loud print fringe skirts, multicolor stockings, and cut-off cowboy boots.

The compilation's best moment comes when a visibly nervous lang, dressed in a kitschy red, white, and blue variation on her usual costume and introduced as the "Rose of Alberta," performs before more than 60,000 people at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. In that clip, she encapsulates the look -- and the attitude -- that infuriated the Kitty Wells-Loretta Lynn school of country-music fans.

But if some of lang's fans objected to her fashions, Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Brenda Lee weren't among them. In 1988 those three singers jumped at the chance to record with lang and former Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley.

A controversial figure, Bradley orchestrated Cline's career. He picked her songs, wrote the arrangements, selected musicians, and twisted the knobs in the studio. What you hear on Cline classics like "Crazy" is as much Owen Bradley as it is Patsy Cline. Because he had so much control, Bradley is both defined as the man who made Cline's career and vilified as the man who hemmed her in.

A devoted Cline fan, lang even claimed for a time that she was Cline reincarnated. The chance to work with Bradley, as well as Wells, Lynn, and Lee, was the high-water mark of lang's country aspirations. The resulting album, Shadowland, is a long, languid, baby-done-me-wrong document that brims with Owen Bradley's stylized string sound.

After Shadowland, though, lang began to work more with Canadian songwriter Ben Mink. Since 1989, when they collaborated on lang's Grammy-winning album Absolute Torch and Twang, Mink and lang have developed a distinct songwriting chemistry.

On her first two recordings, 1983's A Truly Western Experience and her rock-heavy 1987 major-label debut, Angel With a Lariat, lang's songs tended toward honky-tonkin' country stomps that in too many cases sounded alike. But since teaming with Mink, lang has mellowed, drawing on influences like Edith Piaf, Carmen McRae, and the obscure Yma Sumac. She and Mink now write with lang's voice in mind. Instead of country clunkers, she has created a difficult-to-classify style that she calls "postnuclear cabaret." lang may have finally found her musical niche. Just as it is true to herself musically, lang's new style has emboldened her to make her lyrics more autobiographical. Ingenue's willingness to get up close and personal can at times give the listener the sensation of being a voyeur. In one tune, "The Mind of Love," lang even sings to herself by name: "Surely help will arrive soon/And cure these self-induced wounds/Why hurt yourself Kathryn/Why hurt yourself/Why hurt yourself."

In "Outside Myself," lang sings wrenchingly over a swirling melody, "A thin ice/covers my soul/My body's frozen and my heart is cold/And still/So much about me is raw/I search for a place to unthaw."

If Ingenue is any indication, k.d. lang is just beginning to get warmed up.

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