Chris Isaak

The heartache of a spurned lover has inspired many a songwriter. But Isaak's own wellspring of romantic woe has been running over lately, as the talented retro-rocker makes abundantly clear on these painfully tender odes for the lovelorn. The 38-year-old San Francisco resident goes so far as to include in the disc packaging a copy of a letter he wrote, but never mailed, to an unnamed ex-girlfriend, whom he dated for three years. The rockabilly crooner's dreamy love songs and matinee idol looks have gotten him plenty of press. Yet the torment and lonely quaver in his voice sound deeply felt. With guitar reverb trembling and brushes sometimes shuffling on drums, Isaak completes his sensuous landscape of regret and longing.

You can picture Isaak composing these songs while looking out a rain-drenched window with the Bay Area fog rolling in. There's his aching falsetto on "Somebody's Crying" and the acoustic lament of "Don't Leave Me on My Own." The slinky, Orbison-inspired rocker "Goin' Nowhere" sounds almost too self-assured for such an emotional collection, which poignantly captures the sound of a heart breaking in two. (Reprise)

Catherine Wheel

Perhaps it's the unsettling way those squalling guitars rip and roar through fuzzy, claustrophobic arrangements. Or maybe it's frontman Rob Dickinson's pained vocal expression as he groans prickly two-liners like "Won't it make me ill?/ The way you make me feel." Whatever the giveaway, one gets the feeling that these Happy Days haven't lifted this British foursome's spirits.

Although angst is nothing new to alternative rock—where would Pearl Jam be without it?—Catherine Wheel makes it gorgeous as well as purifying. On this, their third album, the band tones down its head-on assault for some tender moments on tunes like "Heal" and "Shocking," while they back up the scathing sentiment of "Eat My Dust You Insensitive F—-" with a surprisingly lovely lullaby of a melody. But if you favor amped-up rage over beauty, crank "Waydown." It sounds like a tense nervous headache, but it's catchy enough to send Catherine Wheel rolling right up the charts. (Mercury)

Mae Moore

The Canadian folk-pop singer seems to be trafficking in craft rather than art on her second U.S. release. The result is a collection that is lighter and less daring than her attention-grabbing 1993 debut, Bohemia. The melodies on Dragonfly have a purposeful simplicity and a folkie feel which, combined with Moore's reedy voice, give the record a moony, subdued mood reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac's Bare Trees.' But Moore still shows flashes of her flair for original arrangements: for instance, the way the conventional country ballad verse of "All I Can't Explain" gives way to a misty, modal chorus.

Moore's gentler approach on her sophomore outing produces dramatically mixed results. Some tracks, like "Evolution (The Same Way)," are so spare as to be almost shapeless. The best songs, such as the supple and sweet "Genuine," are radiant as mother-of-pearl. (TriStar Music)

Don Pullen & the African Brazilian Connection

Pianist Don Pullen's recent death at 53 from lymphoma lends an air of tragic poignancy to this lively, joyous session, recorded at the 1993 Montreux Jazz Festival. Joined by saxophonist Carlos Ward, bassist Nilson Matta, drummer J.T. Lewis and percussionist Mor Thiam, Pullen keeps a spicy blend of exotic moods and polyrhythmic grooves at a constant simmer. On the backbeat-driven "Yebino Spring" he celebrates the radiant promise of a new season with jabbing block chords and cascading tone clusters.

In the weeks before his death the Roanoke, Va., native, who was weaned on gospel and later proved equally adept at playing gutbucket blues as exploring new jazz frontiers, was at work on a forthcoming record with the Chief Cliff Singers, a drum and voice ensemble from the Salish and Kootenai tribes of Montana. To the very end, Pullen did his best to follow the life-affirming message he and the African Brazilian Connection band convey in the fiery finale to Live...Again: "Aseeko!" Translation: Get up and dance! (Blue Note)

The Rembrandts

Fans of TV's Friends may be eager to hear the Rembrandts perform "I'll Be There for You," their catchy theme for the NBC sitcom (which, ironically, was added to L.P. at the last minute, after the show became a hit). But those who cut to the theme song will miss the highlights of the group's third album. L.P.'s, terrific opener, "End of the Beginning," is a moody rocker that weaves an atmosphere of longing, the voices of band members Phil Solem and Danny Wilde entwined and deliriously spiraling. The wailing desperation of "Call Me" and Beatles-esque harmonies of the devious "My Own Way" also stand out. So although L.P. gets a little help from Friends, it can stand quite nicely on its own. (East West/EEG)

>Chris Isaak

A LOVE LETTER IN THE WIND

Getting dumped just doesn't fit Isaak's gilded image. After all, his handsome mug has graced the big screen (Little Buddha, The Silence of the Lambs), and his bewitching "Wicked Game," from the 1990 movie Wild at Heart, was a Top 10 hit. Still, he suffered a tough breakup 18 months ago and felt he'd be Forever Blue. The album is his catharsis. "The strongest emotion people have," he says, "is when they miss someone."

Why did you include the unmailed letter to your ex in the CD?

It seemed pretty natural because I never sent it. In fact these songs are like letters that were never sent. Rather than call my ex on the road, I'd write what was in my head, but I just never got the stamp on it. There are a lot of letters like that in my house.

Were you secretly hoping that she might respond?

No, I'm talking to the wind. I don't think she even listens to my music. It would take a lot more than an album to get us back together. Life tore us apart.

Is it hard to meet suitable women?

I can get women. But when you're talking about love, there's one particular one. That's the difference between love and Friday night.

So how's your love life these days?

Well, the breakup was a fresh wound, so I'm taking it easy now. I'd still like to write some songs about that feeling you have when you first fall in love. But if it means I have to be miserable to write, then I would do something else for a living. I'm not a big believer in suffering more than I have to.

  • Contributors:
  • Andrew Abrahams,
  • Jeremy Helligar,
  • David Hiltbrand,
  • David Grogan,
  • Geoffrey Welchman.