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Review: 'The Chris Isaak Hour'

February 26, 2009 |  3:28 pm

Elvis CoChrisistello is the more famous pop musician with the splashier talk-and-music show — the Sundance Channel series "Spectacle," which has been getting a lot of attention from my Facebook friends — but do not overlook "The Chris Isaak Hour," premiering tonight at 10 on Bio. As has been his musical career, and his music, Isaak's television show is a thing of relative modesty, few frills and straightforward delivery, qualities all to the good when it comes to conversation.

With his Elvis pompadour, his Ricky Nelson/Roy Orbison pipes and his half-ironic fancy duds (a suit of mirrors, baroque embroideries), Isaak has been from the beginning of his career a retro-modernist who has navigated what might be called alternative mainstream. ("Wicked Game" is probably his biggest hit.) As he was in "The Chris Isaak Show," his utterly charming and utterly unavailable Showtime sitcom, he is cool and not cool, a self-deprecating smoothie, a good-looking goofball. A shaggy little white dog sometimes sits by his side. He presents country singer Trisha Yearwood with a plate of brownies baked from a recipe in her cookbook, like the host of some small-town, local-station morning show.

The roster for this seven-episode series leans toward artists not exactly in the full flush of their commercial prime or cultural impact but otherwise ranges fairly wide — Yearwood (tonight's guest), Chicago, the Smashing Pumpkins (who are, coincidentally, from Chicago), Stevie Nicks, Glen Campbell, Michael Buble and Yusuf Islam, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. Isaak does not fear the corn, and clearly any man who invites Chicago onto his show does not feel a pressing need to impress the hip — he is hipper than that, and I expect he'll tease out into the open what unsuspected hipness the band possesses.

The absence of an audience gives the interviews an intimacy informed more by the host's own interests than by the need to put on a show or get a laugh from anyone but the person across from him. The talk covers biography and philosophy but most profitably the nuts and bolts of making music. I knew little about Yearwood before watching Isaak's interview, and, though I am not off to buy her records now, I came away with an appreciation and respect I wouldn't have assumed going in. As an interviewer, Isaak approaches his guests as a fan but does not fawn. There's nothing the least precious about the show, and each of the two hours I've seen (Yearwood and Yusuf) seem remarkably full of both talk and music — you get your hour's worth.

— Robert Lloyd

(Photo credit: Kwaku Alston)