Wednesday, January 8, 2020

CD Odyssey Disc 1331: Lyle Lovett

I worked all day, then did some volunteer work and then spent a lovely evening with friends playing some board games. By all rights I should call it and hit the sack, but the damned CD Odyssey isn’t going to dock in Ithaca without me putting my back into the oars a little. So here we are, and let’s get to rowing.

Disc 1331 is… It’s Not Big It’s Large
Artist: Lyle Lovett and his Large Band

Year of Release: 2007

What’s up with the Cover? Lyle and his large band look out on what is either a splendid concert hall just before a rehearsal or a terrible one just before opening night.

How I Came to Know It: I have been a Lyle Lovett fan for a long time, so I just bought this album back in 2007 when it came out assuming it would be good.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 11 Lyle Lovett albums which, as far as I know, is all of them. Of those, “It’s Not Big It’s Large” comes in at #6. I really like it, but I’ve got a lot of good Lyle Lovett albums.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

When a country singer’s band starts approaching Glen Miller proportions, it should ordinarily give you pause, but Lyle Lovett is no ordinary country singer. His albums have long been a mix of country, soul, gospel, blues and jazz, so if anyone can incorporate a dozen or so extra musicians into the band and make it work, it’s him.

It can also end up an overblown mess if you don’t have the right talent but having seen Lovett live I can attest that he brings with him some of the finest musicians the industry can offer. They’re great live, and on “It’s Not Big It’s Large” they show they are equally capable in the studio.

With this many musicians getting the right producer is important as well, and Lovett’s long-time collaborator (not be confused as the former owner of the Millennium Falcon) Billy Williams is more than up to the task. There may be 15 or 16 musicians overall, and while Williams routinely employs half or more of them on every track, it never seems crowded. Everything comes in where it is needed, with grace, timing and generosity of spirit.

I didn’t even mind the very jazzy opening track “Tickle Toe” which comes dangerously close to a song designed for nothing more than excessive noodling. There’s definitely too much jazz in the odyssey on this song, but it somehow reigns things in and gets no crazier than ‘late night at the Speakeasy’ level. By which I mean, yes, it’s danceable, albeit only barely, and cheap gin probably helps.

At the other end of the spectrum, “Don’t Cry a Tear” is slow and simple, propelled by the somber and deliberate picking pattern on guitar, elevated around the edges by touches of cello, piano and fiddle. Lovett’s careworn vocals twine through the experience, breaking your heart even as they comfort you:

“Go if you must go
Turn if you must turn away
Don’t cry a tear for me.”

The record’s standout is somewhere in between, a mid-tempo ballad called “South Texas Girl.” It is a song of youthful memory, old country roads and simpler times, as it waltzes its way into your heart, longing for the undying love of a South Texas girl or failing that just the simple prayer of the chorus:

“Saint Mother Maria
Watch over us please
As we wander around
In this dangerous world.”

As much as I admire all the big band action of the record, I like it best on songs like this, where Lovett does less with more. Lots of instruments, and lots of voices, but each held back, restrained, and helping you rise up gently into Lyle’s stories.

The devotionals on the album are to be expected on a Lyle Lovett album, but I prefer them when they are intertwined in a story such as on “South Texas Girl”. Elsewhere, songs like “I Will Rise Up” and “Ain’t No More Cane” deliver with honest intentions but tend to drag a little on repeat listens.

Make It Happy” appears to be about a playful spank on the bottom, where the cleverness is Lovett never confirms where the slap lands. It ends up being a half-measure that doesn’t work, even when you know the joke.

These are minor quibbles however, and overall this record was better than I remember it, and worth more of my attention in the years to come. There is plenty of great material, and some of the finest players you’ll find in country music, each deferring to the other to ensure the best overall experience possible.

Best tracks: Don’t Cry a Tear, South Texas Girl, This Traveling Around, The Alley Song

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