August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

Chris Isaak

Chris Isaak operates according to his own timetable, and he’s not in a hurry. Four years ago he released his third album of melancholy, romantic, twanging rock, Heart Shaped World, and for more than a year afterward it looked like he would remain a moderately successful cult idol. Then suddenly one of the languishing album’s cuts, a gorgeous ode to erotic longing called “Wicked Game” became a global hit and sent the singer on a rocket ride from the nightclub circuit to stardom.

Now, after a leisurely interval, rock’s greatest retro heartthrob gives us 12 new songs and a talent that hasn’t faltered. Released this spring, San Francisco Days is still not burning up the charts, but like his past work it’s built to last. Isaak’s magic is an unchanging instrument, and his music has always had more to do with a timeless yesterday than with the restless present.

While the studio sophistication and sonic depth of this new album are light years beyond the plain-vanilla arrangements on his first two releases (1985’s Silvertone and 1987’s Chris Isaak), the world’s coolest crooner continues to explore the same Presley-Orbison-rockabilly-voodoo universe. Why should he change? You certainly wouldn’t update the suffering-hepcat character who sings the new record’s “Lonely with a Broken Heart” any more than you’d try to improve a mint-condition ’56 Chevy. It won’t ever get better.

But there are a few innovative thoughts lurking behind that pretty face. (Isaak’s profile should be carved in marble: Michelangelo’s Elvis.) There’s been a subtle move away from guitarist James Calvin Wilsey’s rich Duane Eddy-style licks in favor of Jimmy Pugh’s tasty Hammond organ. There are lush strings, steel guitars and some fascinating percussion work. And Isaak’s tenor-falsetto singing has become slightly jazzier.

Otherwise, everything’s perfectly the same. “Can’t Do a Thing (to Stop Me)” glamorizes the guilty pleasure and pain of a cheating lover. “Except the New Girl” is a slyly backhanded tale of true love’s late arrival. Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man” is an inspired and darkly transformed cover choice. Several songs are nearly as unforgettable as “Wicked Game” and could follow it to the top. There’s plenty of time. And if we’re lucky, Chris Isaak will continue going nowhere in style for many years to come. (Reprise)

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