LYLE LOVETT AND HIS LARGE BAND "It's Not Big It's Large" (Curb/Lost Highway) 2 stars
The Texan with the funny haircut isn't in a mood for fun on this disappointing release. After opening with a jaunty, high-energy version of jazz legend Lester Young's "Tickle Toe," Lyle Lovett takes us into the valley of the dirges with little relief.
Dirges wouldn't necessarily be a problem, except that many of his lyrics have little in the way of depth and too much in the way of numbing repetition. The results are often exercises in self-pity set to slow tempos.
The thinking man's cowboy isn't exactly prolific these days with new studio material, which makes this misfire especially unfortunate. In the last 11 years he's released a concert recording of old songs ("Live in Texas"), a covers project ("Step Inside This House") and a mostly instrumental film soundtrack (Robert Altman's "Dr. T. & the Women").
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Other than "My Baby Don't Tolerate" (2003), this is only Lovett's second album of mostly original material in that time. Whether it's a rumored case of writer's block or the very real recovery time he needed after suffering serious leg injuries in 2002, new songs from this witty, genre-busting singer-songwriter are pretty rare these days.
"I Will Rise Up/Ain't No More Cane" is a seemingly endless, 7-minute plus comedown from the adrenaline rush of the Lester Young cover, and the simplistic, glass half-empty ruminations of "All Downhill" and overly lugubrious "Don't Cry a Tear" just help to pile on the buzz-killing mood.
Even though the recording is produced to a glistening, spit-shine finish by Lovett and co-producer Billy Williams, the morose atmosphere and pedestrian insights of the tunes threaten to let all the air out of the album's tires.
What's unfortunate, too, is how so many crack musicians try their hardest to penetrate the gloom to little avail, including Bela Fleck (banjo), Sam Bush (mandolin), Matt Kunkel (drums), Viktor Krauss (bass) and Was Not Was vocalists Sweet Pea Atkinson and Harry Bowens - and that's just for starters.
Thankfully, "It's Not Big It's Large" does contain one of Lovett's best-ever compositions, "South Texas Girl," which reminds us just in time what a compelling songwriter he still can be.
A short story filled with deep insight and emotion, the ballad begins and ends with a short refrain from fellow Texan Guy Clark, a singer-songwriter with a world-weary and weathered voice who's been an obvious influence on Lovett. A touching recollection of a childhood car ride with his family, Lovett looks back at this everyday event and turns it into something special and even spiritual.
There are a few other winning moments here, including "Up in Indiana," a fast-paced romp about a guy serving time who's thinking about his old girlfriend, and the slyly engaging "No Big Deal." But you've also got the dreary "This Traveling Around," where the cheery lyric "This traveling around/It's going to be the death of me" is repeated more than a dozen times.
It's apparent that Lovett just doesn't have a lot to say these days.
BEN HARPER & THE INNOCENT CRIMINALS "Lifeline" (Virgin) 3 stars
Eschewing high-tech equipment and aiming for a low-key mood, adult-alternative rocker Ben Harper and his band knocked this album out in barely a week at a less than state-of-the-art studio in Paris. "Lifeline" was recorded immediately after the band completed a nine-month tour, so they might have been a bit tired. But they certainly had an almost telepathic sense of unity from so much time on the road.
"Fight Outta You" and "In the Colors" are quiet, warm and intimate, but Harper heats things up a bit on the more dynamic "Needed You Tonight" and "Say You Will." Built around a delicate piano riff played by Innocent Criminal keyboardist Jason Yates, the soulful "Younger Than Today" is utterly beautiful, as is "Paris Sunrise #7," an exquisite, improvised Weissenborn guitar solo played by Harper.
There's a relaxed but confident quality to this acoustic-based record and it's a nice change of pace for the California native, whose work has been consistently strong ever since his 1994 debut "Welcome to the Cruel World."