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Learning curve

k.d. lang’s musical journey takes her full circle on 'Sing it Loud'

Singer k.d. lang says she wanted her new album, “Sing It Loud,’’ to be soulful, direct, and unpretentious. Singer k.d. lang says she wanted her new album, “Sing It Loud,’’ to be soulful, direct, and unpretentious. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / July 8, 2011

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NEW YORK - The first minute of k.d. lang’s new album is meant to throw you, to rattle expectations you’re bound to have. Her voice, famous for its scope and richness, coos a familiar sentiment.

“I confess/ I need you badly/ Hold me in your arms/ And love me madly,’’ lang sings over a polite piano. She’s been here before.

But then there’s this: “I confess/ I’ll be your daddy/ Ask for anything/ I’ll do it gladly.’’

Cue the clap of thunder. Drums pummel like they’ve been lifted from a heavy-metal band. Electric guitars ramp up. And suddenly lang is in full-on seduction mode, with Roy Orbison’s bombast and Johnny Cash’s swagger rolled into one.

“I Confess’’ is the initial indication that lang is not up to her usual tricks on “Sing It Loud,’’ her latest album, which she recorded with a new band called the Siss Boom Bang. (They come to the Boston area this weekend for two shows: tomorrow night at the South Shore Music Circus and Sunday at the Cape Cod Melody Tent.)

At 49 and after a decade of exploring jazz and the torchier side of her talents, lang has returned with one of the year’s most dynamic pop albums. It’s another curveball from the Canadian artist who made her name with them but hasn’t delivered one in quite a while.

“It was a different challenge. It wasn’t: Bring your most spectacular, most intellectual, most crafted essence to the game,’’ lang says recently, barefoot and relaxed in her dressing room at the Beacon Theatre, where she would perform later in the evening. “It was: Be real, have fun, listen, and give it your all. That’s what we all did.’’

Lang says before writing the record, she and Joe Pisapia, her new musical director and bandmate, sat down and made a manifesto. They wanted “Sing It Loud’’ to be soulful, direct, and unpretentious; the songs should just naturally flow.

“We knew we weren’t going to come up with the most clever songwriting or reinvent a new genre. We didn’t care about that,’’ lang says. “When I sought out someone like Joe, I wanted to have a record that came from the world of Neil Young.’’

Pisapia, who had been a member of the Boston-bred pop band Guster before leaving to work with lang, began the collaboration simply enough - with a conversation. At their initial meeting at Pisapia’s house in Nashville, where they also recorded the album in his studio, he asked lang a casual but crucial question: What are you about after all this time?

Do tell. For her fans, the past decade was a time to take stock of lang’s accomplishments. “Reintarnation,’’ from 2006, compiled the finer moments from her early, kooky country albums. A few years later, “Recollection’’ surveyed the full breadth of her career. “Watershed,’’ her first album of original material in eight years, appeared in 2008.

“I wasn’t totally being lazy,’’ lang says of the intervening years. “It was kind of easier for me to do records that didn’t take a year or two years of my life to write and to make.’’

She’s referring to her two interpretive albums: 2002’s “A Wonderful World,’’ a jazzy collection of standards she recorded with Tony Bennett, and 2004’s “Hymns of the 49th Parallel,’’ which paid tribute to Canada’s celebrated songwriters (Young, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell).

“I’ve been studying this whole time,’’ lang says. “I think ‘Ingénue’ was more of an expression, but the country stuff was kind of a study. ‘All You Can Eat’ was a study in pop music. But this [new album] felt so natural and uncontrived.’’

As she points out, it’s not as if lang had been inactive, but you could sense her next move a mile away. The long, sustained notes that thrill her admirers on songs such as Roy Orbison’s “Crying’’ became tiresome and predictable, at least to these ears. It seemed she was playing right into other people’s expectations of what she was capable of. You began to wonder: Amid all that belting, where was lang’s identity?

She has found it on “Sing It Loud,’’ which, oddly, has flown under the radar. Its songs are tinted with a noirish sensuality, splitting the difference between the torch and twang lang has dabbled in since the beginning. The material was recorded mostly live in the studio with the Siss Boom Bang, a rock quintet that Pisapia assembled from musicians who weren’t afraid to try something new with lang.

“The people who came in with an agenda or thinking they knew what lang was supposed to sound like, they never worked out,’’ Pisapia says. “Everyone approached the music right in the moment.’’

Even more remarkable is the fact that lang has rediscovered her voice’s true power in its restraint. “A Sleep With No Dreaming’’ is among the most transcendent songs she’s ever recorded. The way she elongates the word “I’’ on the refrain, letting it glide over the band like a helium balloon she’s suddenly released . . . well, it sends shivers down the spine. There’s a looseness in lang’s vocals that hasn’t been evident on record since her origins as an off-kilter country singer.

“I never, my producer never, we never let myself just sing,’’ lang says of previous albums. “We were always trying to get the perfect vocal.’’

“One of the things I really let go of was this idea of k.d. lang the world-class singer who can do anything,’’ Pisapia says. “From the very beginning, it was k.d. lang the person. We approached it like you would with any band with any singer.’’

With her biggest hit, 1992’s “Constant Craving,’’ firmly in the rearview mirror, lang says her versatility has probably hindered her career. She has modeled it after other singers who never narrowed their interests; she mentions Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, and Peggy Lee. “To me, that’s the company I want to be in, that vision of a vocalist,’’ she says.

She admits she has been blessed with a voice of extraordinary range, both technical and emotional.

“The first seven years, the country stuff, was just like, holy [expletive]! It was like getting a Porsche and driving like a teenager,’’ lang says. “Then pop music wasn’t so much about the voice. It was more about the songwriting, the image. The last 10 years were really about studying the subtleties and the restraint. It was invaluable what I learned in the last 10 years.’’

From country to pop to jazz and back, lang has nearly come full circle. But what if we had been able to describe k.d. lang in just five words? She takes that question as a challenge.

“I can tell you in two,’’ lang says. “A singer.’’

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

K.D. LANG AND THE SISS BOOM BANG

With the Belle Brigade

At: South Shore Music Circus, tomorrow, 8 p.m., and at Cape Cod Melody Tent

on Sunday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $43.75-$61.75. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com