Sire/Rhino's 2006 Reintarnation, k.d. lang's first-ever compilation, chronicles her time as a country singer, which occupies not quite as much space in her career as you might think. She made her mark in the late '80s as a maverick country singer, not quite part of the West Coast cowpunk movement, but certainly not part of the Nashville establishment, which always treated her coldly, even before she publicly came out of the closet in 1992. Listening to Reintarnation, it's not hard to see why she was not revered by the Music City: lang never strayed from camp, or as she calls it in the liner notes, "performance art," which meant that there was a certain amount of ironic distance in her music even when it sounded on the surface like pure country. That stylized detachment, delivered with a wink and a nod and a nudge, certainly helped her build an audience among '80s college rock fans, who had already embraced cowpunk, roots rock, and several of the edgy new traditionalists who emerged halfway through the decade. Lang was the closest to the latter group: musically, she wasn't all that far removed from the likes of Dwight Yoakam, and lang's tweaking of country conventions also seemed to be a kindred spirit to Lyle Lovett's dry wit. Nashville has always been a conservative town, so they naturally didn't welcome her with open arms, even when she teamed up with legendary Patsy Cline producer Owen Bradley for her 1988 album Shadowland. And when she eased away from her country cabaret routine and toward a modern-day torch singer sound on 1992's Ingénue, the transition felt natural: not only was it clear that she would never be welcomed by the country music establishment, but she had exhausted the possibilities of her country persona, so the time was ripe for something new, which the adult pop of Ingénue did provide.
Reintarnation rounds up the highlights as selected by lang herself from the decade when she was making her way as a country singer (she also approved slight remixing here, often amounting to the removal of some of the heavy echo from Angel with a Lariat). It is by no means a balanced collection representing each of her country records evenly; there is only one cut from Shadowland here and none of her four charting country singles ("I'm Down to My Last Cigarette," "Lock, Stock and Teardrops," "Full Moon Full of Love," "Three Days") are here. Half of her 1987 major-label debut, Angel with a Lariat, is here, along with two cuts from her 1984 debut, Truly Western Experience; her rare 1983 first single, "Friday Dance Promenade"; the demo "Changed My Mind"; three cuts from her soundtrack to Gus Van Sant's 1993 film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; and a full seven of the 12 songs from her 1989 high-water mark, Absolute Torch and Twang. This rundown might seem rather idiosyncratic, but even with the virtual absence of Shadowland, this functions as a good overview of the first part of lang's career, effectively eliminating the need for any of her early albums (besides, of course, the one that's conspicuously MIA). Which isn't to say that all this music will have aged well for all listeners: in retrospect, the camp in lang's performance often overshadows the strength of her music. As powerful as her voice is, it often seems that she's over-singing, as if being over the top will subvert country clichés. To those listeners who remember lang as part of a posse that included Yoakam, Lovett, Steve Earle, and maybe even the Beat Farmers, this theatricality can sour their memories, but for those who love lang as a vocalist or icon, this plays right into her image. Either way, Reintarnation winds up as an effective, even definitive, summation of k.d. lang's early years.