In a recent interview with Dan Aquilante of the New York Post Online, Lyle Lovett explained the rationale behind his most recent album, Smile: Songs from the Movies, a compilation of material he has recorded to accompany films.
"I always have a compulsion to organize my work," he said, "but I broke my leg last year [in a much-publicized encounter with a bull] and I was laying around thinking, 'How can I be productive'? That's how this record came about." Later, he added, "I'm fairly compulsive about organizing the things in my life."
And organize he has.
The 12 songs on Smile represent a wide range of American cinema -- everything from Toy Story ("You've Got a Friend in Me" sung with composer Randy Newman) to Quiz Show ("Moritat [Mack the Knife]") to Kissing Jessica Stein ("Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You") to The Apostle ("I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord"). Lovett's Large Band sounds great on these jazz-big band arrangements of material from classic composers (e.g., Irving Berlin, Nat King Cole, Irving Mills) and well known contemporary songwriters (e.g., Burt Bacharach, Bob Seger).
The results, however, are uneven.
While it's certainly good that Lovett has finally collected this material, too often, his voice simply doesn't dominate like it should. For example, in the title track, a classic tune by Charlie Chaplin, Lovett's voice almost seems disconnected, which certainly doesn't fit the music given that jazz is, inherently, highly collaborative. Or there's "Summer Wind", a song that calls for the vocalist to drive the song -- that's never been Lovett's strength, and it doesn't happen here. Another example would be Ray Charles' "What'd I Say", with its R&B shuffle; Lovett, a cool vocalist, finds himself in a hot song, and the combination doesn't always work.
Granted, the incongruity between Lovett's voice, the Large Band, and the material is a kind of parodic production technique. Generally, big movie songs are designed to give the audience a nice, warm feeling about the film: Lovett's voice, which doesn't quite blend with the music, provides an ironic commentary, undercutting Hollywood's traditional "happy ending", a point made especially clear in "Blue Skies", a song teeming with lyric optimism that's played in a minor key. Lovett's voice provides a perfect twist.
Similarly, the vocal contract between Lovett and Keb' Mo' works nicely on "Till It Shines" as does his duet with Randy Newman on "You've Got a Friend in Me", which finds two distinctive singers working together -- and traces of Ragtime add to the musical subtext.
A highlight of Smile is Lovett's version of "Moritat (Mack the Knife)". Gone is Bobby Darin's upbeat tune. Instead, things begins slowly, gradually gaining momentum, and the song starts swinging as Mark Isham's trumpet solo helps propel the music, with the bowing of the cellos creating the sound of the knife cutting. But by the end, Lovett's voice has assumed an almost desperate vulnerability -- "Mackie, how much did you charge"? It is a fine arrangement.
Smile concludes with two gospel tracks: the bluesy "Pass Me Not" (a hymn co-written by Franny J. Crosby), and the traditional "I'm a Soldier in the Army of the Lord", a swinging gospel number. Both songs work nicely and provide an interesting compliment to the material that has gone before.
Lyle Lovett hasn't released an album of original material since 1996's Grammy-winning Road to Ensenada though that's scheduled to change in the fall of 2003. And while Smile is an uneven project that lacks the quirky country-and-western material that's been a staple of Lovett's career, there's still some fine music here.