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Love That Lyle Lovett

He may be a weird-looking dude, and he may not fit easily into a single musical genre, but make no mistake: Lyle Lovett is one of the finest American songwriters and singers ever to come down the pike. Never mind he first arrived on the scene and has his roots in country, Lyle is a complete American original; with an unmistakable singing and songwriting voice, he handles a range of musical styles with wit, panache and insight.

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His most complete and cohesive album is the superb Joshua Judges Ruth. Covering blues, country, gospel and folk, he knows how to tell a story, drawing in and setting up the listener for a poignant twist or a wry punch line, as he does in Since The Last Time and Church, respectively. Other albums are strong, and some are patchy collections, but over twenty years he's built an impressive catalog of songs. I recall vividly hearing him for the first time, when my buddy, Tom (Thanks, Tom!) introduced Lovett's music to me, playing She's Hot To Go. I was hooked immediately. It was apparent at once here was a new and unique voice, someone who could swing, jab with sharp or subtle humor, give and take, all presented with a smooth and sly vocal style. When dealing with the subject of male/female relationships, he approaches it from many angles. He can be sarcastic or nasty: as in She's Hot To Go or Her First Mistake, both playful and self deprecating pick-up songs; She's No Lady, a facetious stab at marriage; and My Baby Don't Tolerate, where he bristles at the controlling mate. Or, he can be wistful with a break-up song, like She's Already Made Up Her Mind and All My Love Is Gone. But all this is balanced with sweet, tender love songs as in the straight, simple and beautiful Flyswatter/Ice Water Blues and especially Nobody Knows Me, or fun, bouncy feel-good love tunes like Cute as a Bug and She Makes Me Feel Good. His second best album, Lyle Lovett and his Large Band is split in two sections (one side each on the original LP): Big Band and Country. The country side features some of his best songs, some mentioned above, as well as a gender-flipping cover, Stand By Your Man. There's nary a clunker on the bluesy Big Band portion of the album, with additional stand-outs Here I Am, What Do You Do/The Glory Of Love and Good Intentions. Sure, I don't love it when he gets all twangy, but then just don't play those tracks as much. But sometimes when working in the country song form, he gives things a twist, with titles like I Married Her Just Because She Looks Like You, She's Leaving Me Because She Really Wants To, and the post-divorce ditty, where the narrator says, "You can have my girl, but...Don't Touch My Hat." And lesser efforts like I Love Everybody and Step Inside This House (a double album of covers of lesser known fellow songwriters) still have their worthwhile tracks, like Bears from the latter, and from the former: Penguins; Creeps Like Me; Skinny Legs; and Old Friend. Through all the up-tempo songs, the sly humor, he'll occasionally cut to the quick with devastating studies on family and loss. In Family Reserve, he relates the stories of the unexpected deaths of friends and family. The ghosts of those departed join him in the final chorus, "Were all gonna be here forever/So mama don't you make such a stir/Just put down that camera/And come on and join up/The last of the family reserve." And in Since The Last Time, which begins with the line, "I went to a funeral/Lord, it made me happy...." Starting off as tentative blues/folk, it explodes in a gospel celebration, defiantly spitting in the face of death, before plaintively revealing the surprising narrator. With these two brilliant tunes, both from the superb Joshua Judges Ruth, he'll set you up, knock you down, then pop you right back up again.

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His latest release, It's Not Big It's Large shows Lyle's still got it, with a handful of gems, some of which are already among my favorite all-time Lovett songs. Make It Happy is a jaunty happy-go-lucky tune, seemingly merging three or four musical genres in one song, an irresistible concoction. A classic country ditty, Up In Indiana features great harmonies, solos and a touch of bluegrass. All Downhill is a bouncy Texas shuffle, wherein Lyle wonders how soon his luck will run out. Given the high quality of his overall output and latest material, I'd say not any time soon.

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