“The Road to Ensenada,” Lyle Lovett
Lyle Lovett’s sixth album opens with one of his typically acerbic odes to Texas, a laid-back country-blues number titled “Don’t Touch My Hat” in which the lanky singer-songwriter tells a stranger: “So if it’s her you want/I don’t care about that/ You can have my girl/But don’t touch my hat.”
It’s vintage Lyle Lovett, as is the rest of “The Road to Ensenada,” an album that finds him back in form after 1994’s overindulgent “I Love Everybody.”
“Ensenada,” released last week, combines the bluesy, swinging, jazzy, folky brand of country he crafted on his first three albums with the soulful, gospel-tinged jubilance of 1992’s excellent “Joshua Judges Ruth.”
He does, however, stretch out on “Fiona,” a New Orleans-meets-Southern-California corker bubbling over with a quasi-funky beat and a breezy folk-pop chorus featuring pals Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin.
But Lovett’s forte remains his fascination for Western swing. The CD’s centerpiece, “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” is a frenetic, brassy masterpiece filled with Lone Star references and booming background vocals by mainstays Sweet Pea Atkinson and Sir Harry Bowens. Recorded before the ValuJet accident, the song includes a bittersweet nod to the late Walter Hyatt - an early influence of Lovett’s who died in the crash - and his seminal Uncle Walt’s Band.
“That’s Right” harks to 1989’s Grammy-winning “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band,” as does “Long Tall Texan,” a duet with “Toy Story” partner Randy Newman that sports a slow, moseying pace reminiscent of singing cowboys in old Westerns.
Those two songs - along with “Fiona” and the samba-flavored “Her First Mistake” - characterize Lovett’s artistic prowess: a singer-songwriter affected by the roots of country, influenced by the quiet power of folk and intrigued by the flashiness of blues and big band. His ability to juggle those varied styles and inject them with his lovable, smart-aleck persona is as distinguishable as that hair.
Yet Lovett still has a tendency to give us too much. Clocking in at almost an hour, “Ensenada” is one long road to travel, especially since songs such as “Who Loves You Better” and a hidden bonus track called “The Girl in the Corner” - a veiled narrative that could be about his failed marriage to Julia Roberts (“Then she smiled at me/then she turned her eyes away from me/and the rest they say is history.”) - drag down the record’s otherwise peppy pace.
Keeping a lively step is important for Lovett, whose Mose Allison-inspired voice remains a study in languid detachment. But he’s an intelligent songwriter and musician, so he has the smarts to frequently surround himself with better singers and plenty of musical diversity.
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