Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Like many folks, I hopped on the k.d. lang bandwagon in the early Nineties. Prior to the release of 1992’s Ingénue, k.d. was best known as an oddball country artist. A semi-butch lesbian from Canada, she worshiped Patsy Cline and made a career for herself as a decidedly nice performer.
With its huge hit single “Constant Craving”, Ingénue changed all that. lang quickly attained popularity with an adult contemporary crowd who’d not noticed her earlier incarnation. While I was well aware of country k.d., her work didn’t do anything for me, so Ingénue led me to become a fan.
Unlike most of the post-Ingénue partisans, however, I’ve stuck with k.d. over the last decade. No one will mistake me for one of her biggest fans; I like her work a lot, but she’s not one of my all-time faves. Still, I pick up each new album and always go to see her ever enjoyable live shows.
Usually when I develop an interest in an act, I dive in all the way. I pick up all the earlier work I missed and develop a pretty full collection. That didn’t happen when I started to like k.d. All my purchases have stayed with post-Ingénue work. Despite the fact her career started in the early Eighties, I own nothing by her that existed prior to 1992.
Why did I violate my normal MO? Because I don’t care for country music, so I reasoned that it seemed unlikely I’d like any of k.d.’s older material. I had some experience with a little of her pre-1992 work via live programs. Both 1998’s Live In Sydney and 2001’s Live By Request included a smattering of older tracks. I didn’t mind any of these, but they didn’t really encourage me to pursue early k.d.
Nonetheless, I remained moderately intrigued by pre-Ingénue lang, so I decided to give her 1991 video compilation a look. Entitled Harvest of Seven Years: Cropped and Chronicled, this program provides 19 performances from 1983 through 1991. It starts with a rendition of “Friday Dance Promenade” from a Canadian show called Sun Country and proceeds through k.d.’s various guises.
The early years offer the worst music but provide the most entertaining clips. “Friday” introduces “Kathy Lang” - the only time we see her use her full, proper name - and is a rinky-dink little country tune with little to stand out from the crowd. The next two tracks offer actual music videos, or at least the very primitive, low-budget early-Eighties facsimiles. “Bop-a-lena” and “Polly Anne” go for a rock-a-billy vibe and are both exceedingly silly. lang seemed to really accentuate the butch dyke side of the equation in some of these early days, and these clips look somewhat “in your face”, in a dated and comic manner. The tunes themselves are hyperactive and not very engaging.
”Pine and Stew” finds k.d. back on Sun Country. With an extremely masculine haircut and a ridiculous outfit, the tune seems more traditionally country than its two predecessors. Surprisingly, it’s the best number to date; it doesn’t sound great, but the others seem so forced and artificial that this one works better.
For “Hanky Panky” we discover k.d.’s first “professional” music video. “Bop-a-Lena” and “Polly Anne” looked like they were made by a high school AV class, while “Panky” comes across as more mature. Unfortunately, the video offers a dopey hoedown theme, and the crummy song does nothing to elevate the setting.
“Johnny Get Angry” provides another live piece, but the melodramatic and silly song doesn’t seem very interesting. The “Don’t Be A Lemming Polka” comes from another Sun Country performance and also suffers from k.d.’s novelty-act leanings of the early years; both the song and the performance seem dull.
An additional Sun Country rendition, “Pay Dirt” works better than most of its predecessors, but it still appears fairly lackluster. Like “Panky”, “Turn Me Round” offers another hoedown video. However, this one’s a little more interesting, and the song’s vaguely “Devil Went Down to Georgia” flavor makes it bland but enjoyable.
With “Three Cigarettes In an Ashtray”, we encounter the first Harvest tune I’d already heard. “Cigarettes” has long been a lang live staple; it appears in both Live In Sydney and Live By Request. k.d. plays up the campier elements of the tune in that setting, and this live performance from a TV program features that same emphasis. The song’s okay, but it’s never done much for me, largely due to the silly presentation.
Another live staple, “Crying” appears twice on Harvest. The first clip provides a black and white music video during which she duets with song-originator Roy Orbison. Actually, Orbison does most of the singing; lang largely provides back-up vocals. The video seems watchable but dull, and the new version appears good but unexceptional.
A second rendition of “Turn Me Round” shows up next. Taken from the ceremonies for the Calgary Olympics, this is an absolutely overdone and ridiculous presentation. All sorts of dancers and whatnot fly about lang as she emotes to the best of her abilities. It’s interesting for archival reasons but can’t be regarded as good.
For “Honky Tonk Angels”, lang hooks up with legends Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells. Unfortunately, the stale semi-performance video does nothing to enliven the stiff and lifeless song. Or maybe it’s just too honky-tonk for me.
Since “Trail of Broken Hearts” also appeared on Live By Request, I already knew it. I think it’s a decent song, but the boring outdoors lip-synch video does nothing to make it more compelling. On the other hand, the clip does seem to feature a lesbian romance subplot, which at least offers something unusual.
As an additional live staple, I knew “Pullin’ Back the Reins” from both of the earlier concert videos. It’s another pretty good song, though not one of my faves. The clip seems adequate; it’s a blah lip-synch feature that does little to excel, but it gets the job done.
Next we get that live version of “Crying” which comes from something called the “Songwriter’s Hall of Fame”. k.d. offers the usual strong rendition of the tune; it’s a good showcase for her voice. While this version isn’t her best, it stills works well.
“Ridin’ the Rails” offers a glorified novelty tune as k.d. pairs with Take 6. It’s a crummy song and this is a dull lip-synch video that I didn’t like. However, I suppose it at least marked small inroads for lang’s new direction, so it has that going for it.
From the Cole Porter tribute album and AIDS benefit Red, Hot and Blue, “So In Love” provides a strangely intriguing video. k.d. lip-synchs as she apparently mourns a lost love and does some laundry. It’s a decent song as well.
Finally, another live staple ends the collection. “Barefoot” came from the soundtrack of her 1991 film debut, Salmonberries. (No, I’ve never heard of it either, though apparently it’s coming out on DVD.) The song definitely fits with the Ingénue spirit and it’s a memorable track. The video stars the winter landscape and is bland as a whole.
As part of this package, k.d. provides introductions to many of the tunes. This occurs as part of the running program; she appears prior to the numbers and offers brief and often witty thoughts and facts about the material. These are welcome additions, as they offer both information and charm. k.d. has always been a very engaging personality, and this feature is quite entertaining.
Note that not all of the videos enjoy k.d.’s comments. She fails to appear prior to “Hanky Panky”, “Don’t Be a Lemming Polka”, “Turn Me Round” (the video - she shows up for the Olympics performance), “Pullin’ Back the Reins”, “Crying” live, and “Ridin’ the Rails”.
Now that I’ve exposed myself to early k.d. lang, have I changed my mind about this older work? Nope. To be sure, some good material appears here, but most of it hasn’t aged well. A lot of the songs seem silly and forced, and only a few of the tracks compare favorably with lang’s music from the last decade. As a fan, it was fun to watch Harvest, but it didn’t convince me that her first seven years included anything terribly compelling.