The fiddle and piano lines that open Lyle Lovett's newest album, My Baby Don't Tolerate, offer an immediate indication of what Lovett has in store for the listener this time out.
The opening cut, "Cute As a Bug", gets the eight-piece band swinging country-style, with Stuart Duncan's fiddle giving way to a funky piano run by Matt Rollings and slick solos by Duncan and Paul Franklin on steel guitar.
It's big, rollicking sound, the essence of the best of modern country music while harkening back to Texas swing bands like Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys -- that's the table setter for this solid 14-song effort, his 12th album (including an anthology disc issued in 2001 and collection issued earlier this year of songs he recorded for the cinema).
Lovett is a genre-bending cowboy, a singer and songwriter who revels in a mix of musical styles and who brings a literate sensibility to his lyrics. He is very much a country crooner, but owes a significant debt to the country-influenced singer-songwriters of the 1970s. And he mixes into his often funky brew strands of jazz, blues, R&B, roots rock, gospel and a host of other heartland musical styles. Stirring this mix, of course, is one of the most distinctive voices in music today, a comfortable baritone edged with a Texas twang.
Lyrically, the new disc does not stand up to his earlier outings, though there are gems here a-plenty, and Lovett has mixed what are some magnificent ballads -- in particular, "In My Own Mind" and "You Were Always There" -- in among a stew of up-tempo tunes, closing with a pair of dancing-in-the-aisles gospel songs.
"You Were Always There" is perhaps the best tune on the disc, a haunting song about loss and love, Lyle's voice supported by Rollings's delicious piano. "Now there's no one left to guide me / Tell me now what I'm supposed to do / Oh what I'm supposed to do".
But there is no one to answer the singer, though reminders of the lost one are present everywhere. "I feel the wind blow", he sings, "It's rushing through my hair / Out in the shadows / Your face is everywhere".
And while "A new horizon / It's all supposed to be" and there is "the voice of / Eternal hope and love" coming from above, there remains that emptiness, as the song fades on a pleading, repeating refrain -- "You were always there".
"In My Own Mind" is a reflection on self, on the ability of one to find that place of calm within one's self, "where I can breathe". The song drifts back and forth between the tangible -- morning coffee, the plowing of the fields, his hunting and fishing buddies, his wife "standing in the kitchen" -- and his internal life, summed up in the chorus. "I live in my own mind", he sings, "Ain't nothing but a good time / No rain, just sunshine / Out here in my own mind".
While the ballads contain the lyrical punch, it is the up-tempo songs that add the exclamation point -- particularly the two gospel shouts that close the disc, the powerful "I'm Going to Wait", with its refrain of "I'm going to wait / Just a little bit longer / Until my Savior / He comes for me", and "I'm Going to the Place".
On first listen, songs like "Cute As a Bug" or "San Antonio Girl" are rather lightweight, simple ditties that in someone else's hands might go nowhere. But Lovett and his band play each song with a level of commitment and an intensity that should force even the most skeptical of listeners to just tap their feet and go with the flow.
"Cute As a Bug", as I said, opens with that short repeating fiddle and piano line and then jumps into a full band swing, a real country dervish that makes it easy to forget that this is a simple song about a man whose spirits are raised by the fleeting sight of a woman behind the wheel of a Volkswagen. The title cut is a bluesy, tongue-in-cheek paean to the singer's lover, who apparently keeps the wayward singer in check. He knows "Some things / My baby don't tolerate", which is OK because "a smaller more ordinary man / Might not appreciate the guidance of a good woman / Who truly loves him". The singer does, because "I'm proof that true love will / Set you free".
It's not innovative music, not groundbreaking or trend setting, but it is passionate -- which is what makes songs like "Cute As a Bug", the title cut and the other up-tempo tunes such great fun to listen to.
And that, ultimately, is what Lovett's mission appears to be here, to get past all the baggage that weighs us down, to find that girl in the Volkswagen or that "San Antonio Girl" and take that "long drive / That gives him some peace of mind" as he waits for the Judgment Day.