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Lyle Lovett - Step Inside This House
(Curb/MCA)

Lyle Lovett epitomizes Texas cool in a way no one else does. He’s the quick-witted smoothie, the adept storyteller, the endearing guy with the wry, realistic smile. In person, he’ll crack you up with the most deadpan delivery this side of Steven Wright. On record, he can generally be counted on to serve up more slices of masterful songwriting and singing than can be consumed by the average American in a single meal. What ties it all together, of course, is his Texasness.

Perhaps Lovett is feeling a relative dearth of inspiration; though his 1996 album The Road To Ensenada took the Grammy for best country album, it was easily his weakest studio effort since 1987’s Pontiac. Now he’s back with a two-disc set, but it consists entirely of covers. Before dismissing this album and panicking about the virility of his post-Julia Roberts muse, though, know that Lovett didn’t just cough out a hodgepodge of reinterpretations of songs by Men Without Hats, Anita Ward, and Ace. No, no. What he delivers this time out is a collection of 21 little-known tunes by underappreciated songwriters from—all together now—Texas.

The results are inspired. The muse is intact. And the songs are wonderful. It begins with the delightful "Bears," a Steven Fromholz composition, and doesn’t let up through the traditional closer, "Texas River Song." There are songs by critics’ faves like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Robert Earl Keen. The arrangements are tasteful throughout, calling to mind ’90s Lovett classics like Joshua Judges Ruth and I Love Everybody, though without any of the zany horn-laden rave-ups which punctuated his last few albums, often unnecessarily. There’s no dead weight here. Totally pleasant and light, but not lightweight. A work of art.

YEAH YEAH YEAH, 1998