Sunday, July 15, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 418: Lyle Lovett

As promised, my next review comes under the ‘new album exemption,’ not because I like it more than all my other recent purchases, but because Sheila and I just saw the tour last Wednesday, and this gives me an opportunity to write about that while it’s fresh in my mind.

Disc 418 is…Release Me
Artist: Lyle Lovett

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover?  Lyle Lovett looks surprisingly calm for a man standing on a country road, tied up with a lasso.  Interestingly, the thank you section of the liner notes includes “thanks to Dell Hendricks for loaning us his rope.”

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Lyle since way back in the early nineties, and I’ve been buying his records ever since.  I didn’t realize he had a new album out in 2012, but when I saw he was touring, I figured it was in support of a new record and went and found it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eleven Lyle Lovett albums, which I think is all of them.  “Release Me” is probably 8th on the list, bumping 2009’s “Natural Forces” (reviewed way back at Disc 51) down a spot.

Rating:  3 stars

Like Janelle Monae back at Disc413, this review is two-in-one, covering both the studio album and then the concert I saw in support of it.

The album 

Lyle Lovett is a gifted and creative song writer, but in the last few years he has been putting out records with more cover material than original.

This would be more disappointing than it is, if it weren’t for the fact that Lyle has such a great ear for choosing songs, and how gifted he is at putting his own twist on the material.

“Release Me” has Lyle’s signature sound, which is a bit hard to categorize.  I think if he were a cocktail he’d be two parts country, two parts blues and one part jazz, but the measures jump around a little bit from track to track.

What comes across strong on the record is Lyle’s active interest in the history of all these styles of music.  He is a traditionalist, and when he plays an old standard like Eddie Miller’s “Release Me,” his respect for the crooners of old country is clear.  I’ve never liked that song very much, but Lyle brought me over a little bit with his earnest delivery.

His love for the blues is also evident, with songs like “Isn’t That So,” and the self-effacing “White Boy Lost in the Blues.”  Of the two, “Isn’t That So” has vestiges of the ‘large band’ with an active horn section and some funky guitar, even though this album is generally a lot smaller and more acoustic.  The best bluesy line in the song is:

“Now did you know what he was doing
When he divided high and low
You got to bury that seed in the dirt my friend
If you want that thing to grow.”

It is a good reminder that it isn’t the blues if you don’t rub some dirt on it.

Lovett often does covers of Townes Van Zandt classics, and on “Release Me” he goes for the up-tempo blues song, “White Freightliner Blues.”  This is not one of my favourite Van Zandt songs, and while Lovett peppers it with some fine solo work by the studio musicians, it didn’t really grab me.

Also, Lyle’s need to have silly lyrics continues with the song “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”  Having listened to this song at least a half dozen times now, I am still not sure what it is about – variably crime, baseball and at one point a weird reference to the Venus de Milo:

“And the Venus de Milo was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hands
She lost both her arms in a wrestling match
Over a brown-eyed handsome man.”

What the hell?  I had thought ACDC had cornered the market on silly Venus de Milo references with “she had the face of an angel smiling with sin/the body of Venus with arms,” but Lyle looks like he wants a shot at the title.  It is too bad, too, because “Brown-eyed Handsome Man” has a quality melody, but the lyrics really pull me out of the experience.

The best songs on “Release Me” are Lyle at his quietest and most introspective and these songs more than make up for a few minor missteps here and there.

Dress of Laces” tells a tragic love story, of a young girl, born out of a passing relationship between a fisherman and a waitress at the local harbor bar, growing up sad and angry at her absentee father.  It is a beautiful little song, made all the better by Lyle’s haunting delivery as the story of two generations of emotionally wounded women works its way to its tragic conclusion.

The best song on the record, though, is “Understand You” a gorgeous track written by Eric Taylor, and arranged with just Lyle’s plaintive voice and a single acoustic guitar.  As his voice rises through the chorus of “can’t you tell, I’m tellin’ you that I want to…understand you” he delivers a pitch perfect blend of beer-soaked country sympathy and romantic urban confessional.

Lyrically I love this song, and there are so many great and glorious lines, from the opening salvo:

“What a pretty mystery you
You suddenly turned out to be
I've never held you gently
But I want to”

To his more earnest and forthright efforts later in the song

“Well, I'm sofa sitting, compromising
Thoughts on what I'm realizing
Ask me what I'm thinking

“It's hard to say cause the way I'm reeling
It could be most anything
To do with you”

Lyle takes a song that is ostensibly about trying to score with a girl, and turns it into a tale of high romance.

“Release Me” is not Lyle’s greatest work, but there are flashes of greatness on the record.  I would say of his later work, it is his best effort in the last decade or so.  Late in his career he is still maintaining a high standard both in terms of honouring those that have come before him, and delivering something fresh at the same time.

The Concert – July 11, 2012 – The Royal Theatre, Victoria BC

Our tickets to Lyle Lovett were close to $100 each, which is a pretty steep price, but I paid it since I’d never seen him and his reputation as a live performer was excellent.  It turns out that reputation is well earned.

From a technical perspective, the sound was excellent.  At the Royal Theatre you have to be careful to not over-amplify the sound, and when Sheila and I saw two banks of big speakers up at the corners of the stage we were nervous that we’d be treated to a bunch of distortion, with sound bouncing off the walls.

Those fears were unfounded, as the sound was perfectly mixed.  Better still, Lyle even commented about the amazing acoustics, noting how perfectly he could hear every note, as he meticulously retuned his guitar between songs to ensure it was perfect.

The set list was what I want from an established artist, that being about half new material and half old standards.  I would’ve liked him to play some more obscure songs from early albums, like Leonard Cohen or Steve Earle sometimes do, but that is a minor quibble.

He did about eight or nine songs off the new album, and having just bought it earlier that day, it really helped me appreciate where he was going with this record.

I thought he rushed a bit through “L.A. County” but really nailed “Record Lady,” after telling a short story about how playing old songs is sometimes awkward, and the caution, “so I’m going to play it now but just so you know, it’s probably stupid.”  It was anything but stupid, and made better by Arnold McCuller’s amazing background vocals.

Speaking of the band, Lyle is the most gracious and generous front man you’ll meet in the music business.  His band mates were all exceptional at their instruments.  Luke Bulla is one of the finest American-style fiddle players I’ve ever heard, and when I looked him up it was no surprise to learn he is a champion competition player many times over.

Keith Sewell is equally amazing on both lead acoustic guitar and mandolin, and when Lyle gave him an opportunity to take centre stage and do one of his own songs, it was fantastic, reminding me of a more relaxed Jimmy Rankin.

Lovett not only provided all three of these band members a chance to do their own original work, after each performed he would do a little banter with them, where he made sure everyone in the audience knew their name, and where they could buy their album.

Lyle has the gift of the gab, with a dry sense of humour and a great sense of timing.  At the same time, he doesn’t overdo the stage talk, and keeps the focus on the music.

In fact, when he isn’t telling a joke, he is mostly talking about the history of his musical education, the careers and background of the songs he is covering that aren’t his own, and his own growth as a singer and songwriter.

After one such bit of banter, Lyle played Buddy Holly’s “Well…All right” which was the highlight of the concert for me, and has practically ensured that I’ll be buying some Buddy Holly soon.

Throughout it all, Lyle’s voice sounded as strong as when he first hit the scene in the mid-eighties.  Who knows how long that will last, so I strongly encourage you to get out and see him while he is still in his prime.  It will be a well spent $100.

Best tracks:  (from the album) – Isn’t That So, Understand You, Dress of Laces.

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