Sound Check: February 2008

News and reviews of queer women in music.

Recently, veteran lesbian performers k.d. lang and Patty Larkin released albums a week apart. It was Larkin’s first release since 2003; lang’s first original solo LP in eight years (her 2004 album, hymns of the 49th parallel, was comprised of covers).

Larkin has been an East Coast hit, and on her new album, Watch the Sky, she takes her rightful liberties to fully control the songwriting, producing and engineering of the album. Despite using unconventional instruments like the bouzouki (a Greek string instrument) and a “baribow” (an electric baritone guitar played with a violin bow), Watch the Sky isn’t all that cohesive. Most of it sounds sullen and lonely, as Larkin attempts to be reflective through tired themes of nature (“We were walking in the park” on the light-hearted “Beautiful,” “Dear heart beat for me, dear heart, beneath the shaded tree” on “Dear Heart,” etc.).

Perhaps Watch the Sky is disappointing because it lacks the true folk soul that made Larkin so distinguishable in the first place. In the 1990s, she stood out in the music industry because she was a fantastic musician who knew how to play her guitar with heart, but on her newest effort, she might have spread herself too thin by fiddling with the rest of the production.

While Patty Larkin may be a new name in your lesbian musician catalog, k.d. lang is surely not, and yet it’s completely possible you’ve never heard her sing a note. She is somewhat synonymous with lesbian music, even though her sound is much different than others who are also lumped into the same overly broad category (see: Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco). Even if you only know lang from her lesbian chic Vanity Fair cover with Cindy Crawford from the ’90s, now is the perfect time to discover the country-tinged soul of her music.

Her latest album, Watershed, is a modern-day creation of Patsy Cline meets Ella Fitzgerald, a culmination of her career in both the western and jazz genres such as 1989’s Absolute Torch and Twang and 2002’s A Wonderful World with Tony Bennett. Her range moves easily from the depths of an alto to a pleasant soprano, and her voice sounds like it was made to accompany the ballads.

Compared to Larkin on Watch the Sky, lang sticks with what she’s good at: Her vocals are the focus, and the strings in the background remain in the background. “I will make you happy baby, I will make you smile,” she sings on “Once in a While,” where her Karen Carpenter-esque singing against a slightly country background almost makes modern country bearable.

Like Larkin, lang also took charge of her album, acting as producer for the first time, and she’s done well. It might seem pass√©, but getting to know k.d. lang is getting to know some great bossa nova pop with an edge of twang.

Preview “Sunday” from k.d. lang’s new album, Watershed: