It's easy to discuss the subtleties of Lyle Lovett, because subtleties are all he has.
I admit, part of me wants to tie up Lyle Lovett and leave him in the desert, just to get him to scream or cuss or react in an appropriately unsubtle fashion. But since I, like Lovett, grew up Lutheran, I have learned to suppress such urges. And anyway, no matter what you might think of Lovett, he’s beaten you to it. There he is on the cover of his eleventh album Release Me, tied up in the desert, looking resigned and frankly unsurprised that his photographer did this to him. The album’s title slyly yet affectionately kisses off his career-spanning Curb Records contract, which ends now that Release Me is in the can. Lovett slyly yet affectionately sends up his public persona with two of the album’s cover songs: Michael Franks’s “White Boy Lost in the Blues” and Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”. The guy’s sly and affectionate like a Zen monk. His heart’s as wide and unknowable as the Texas plains, even if he sings about as effortlessly as an oilman digging a well.
Lovett started his Curb career as an Americana visionary, blending country, blues, jazz, and even thorny modernism -- think the droning storms of “She’s Already Made Up Her Mind” -- into irreducible crowd pleasers. He formed a small Western swing combo and a Large Band full of expert musicians, many of whom have stuck with him for years. Lovett’s blues phrasing often seems pinched or stiff, his voice cracking off lines as though he's not sure how to end them, but his bands and songwriting rarely hit a wrong note, metaphorically or otherwise.
Release Me isn’t so visionary. It’s largely covers and duets, with Lovett coasting through some favorite songs with his combo. (Horns appear only once, on the Triple-A single “Isn’t That So”.) As such, you probably don’t need it unless you’re a completist, either for all things Lovett or for renditions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”.
Yes, there’s one of those -- Release Me includes all of Lovett’s 2011 Christmas EP Songs for the Season. You may argue that the world needs another cover of “Baby” like it needs a nuclear Iran, and you’d be right, especially since Blaine and Kurt’s definitive version on Glee. But Lovett’s duet with Austin jazz singer Kat Edmonson is one of the drunker takes out there; as their voices wobble and intertwine, they actually sound like they’re inventing the song while they sing. The chipmunk-voiced Edmonson also shows up on Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here”, which is pleasant while it lasts. The most useful of the Xmas tunes is Lovett’s tossed-off original “The Girl With the Holiday Smile”, about the chipper whore he met at the grocery store. Hey, “whore” and “store” rhyme!
Other Covers That Are Good include Ray Price’s title shuffle, with k.d. lang taking the role of Kitty Wells; Charley Jordan’s rapid-fire blues “Keep It Clean”; Townes Van Zandt’s choogaloogin’ “White Freightliner Blues”; and the swingin’ modal instrumental “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom”. The aforementioned “White Boy” features vocals from Arnold McCuller, whom you may remember as the Preacher in Lovett’s 1992 epic “Church”. These songs offer nothing in the way of surprise or reinterpretation, but they’re nice to hear. The most surprising tune is probably the gorgeous “Night’s Lullaby”, which Lovett wrote for a production of Much Ado About Nothing. Lovett’s open-throated yearning, some lovely guest harmonies, and a great fiddle line make “Lullaby” resonate far beyond its original context.
Unfortunately, the other songs are so stripped down there’s hardly anything left to them. Both “Dress of Laces”, originally cut by Nanci Griffith, and Eric Taylor’s “Understand You” are slow and serious to a fault, with “Laces” clocking in at over six minutes of maudlin morosity. Lovett also covers Martin Luther’s “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast In Your Word”, which has been boring Lutherans silly for almost 500 years. (He might’ve picked it just because it uses the word “curb”.) If William Moore didn’t write “One Way Gal” in his sleep, Lovett does nothing to dispel that impression. His take on “Handsome Man” adds nothing to its umpteen previous versions, aside from a Henry Aaron name-drop.
Thanks to the band and Nathaniel Kunkel, Lovett’s co-producer and longtime engineer, Release Me sounds clear and detailed, the better to enjoy its flawless performances. On the other hand, if you perform a boring song flawlessly, doesn’t that just make it more boring? Here’s hoping Lovett’s next record deal rekindles his vision; in the meantime, this send-off should please his cult.