Lyle Lovett has worn many hats since emerging on the country scene in the mid-8os, many of which have not been of the 10-gallon variety. The proud Texan singer-songwriter, with the aid of his large (not big) band, has negotiated an eclectic career that has deftly combined elements of country, folk, jazz, and the blues, all tied neatly together by a transcendent voice that can capture the cool grit of an outlaw on one song and reflect the frailty of a wounded lover the next. On Release Me, Lovett plies this musical dexterity to offer lovely renderings of several of his favorite songs by others.
A large part of Release Me’s charm is that it almost never feels like Lovett is singing and playing someone else’s songs; all of these could be his. Perhaps this is because he typically covers songs that he loves and artists who have influenced him (see 1998’s double-length Step Inside This House). But even more important than selecting dear material or staying put in his wheelhouse (vast as that is), Lovett never comes across as a tinkerer or an interpreter with too heavy a touch. He has an uncanny and underrated ability to let others’ songs breathe through him, a quality that has allowed him to previously cover songs as unlikely as Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” without so much as a raised eyebrow from listeners.
The standout cover here is the achingly beautiful take on John Grimaudo and Saylor White’s “Dress of Laces”, the tale of a sailor’s daughter whose longing for her absent father leads her to murder. Lovett’s trademark acoustic plucking accompanies wistful lines like, “And she has a need for sharin’/For someone warm and carin’/And no one sees a heart that’s underfed”; it’s a simple lyric through which Lovett manages to convey a lifetime’s worth of longing and neglect. By the time Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins joins him on the soaring harmonies of the first chorus, the poor daughter’s story is already unbearably saddening.
But it’s far from all tragedy on Release Me. Jesse Winchester’s “Isn’t That So” provides Lovett with the swagger and mantra (“You have to go where your heart says go/ Isn’t that so”) necessary to flex his band’s rock muscles, replete with emphatic trumpet, trombone, and saxes that both punctuate and drive the action. “We got you chained to your earphones/ You’re just a white boy lost in the blues,” proclaim Lovett and vocalist Arnold McCuller on Michael Franks’ “White Boy Lost in the Blues”, a bluesy rocker that hints at the fact that Lovett probably was one of those white boys once.
In addition to 12 covers, Lovett sneaks in two originals during the record’s homestretch. “The Girl with the Holiday Smile” (also appearing on last year’s Songs for the Season EP) playfully couples jazzy piano and percussion with fiddle to tell of an encounter with a woman of ill repute who “looks so good beneath a Christmas tree.” It’s the type of holiday song you can play at the family Christmas party, giggling to yourself as your relatives unknowingly tap their toes to a song about the police busting up an evening with a hooker. The more country “Night’s Lullaby” (originally penned for a stage production of Much Ado About Nothing) gently follows with piano, mandolin, and fiddle, Lovett joined on the pretty choruses again by Watkins and also her brother Sean Watkins (also of Nickel Creek).
An album of covers and previous releases, even one as thoughtfully assembled and beautifully rendered as Release Me, is rarely a substitute for a proper album of new material. But listeners will find plenty to enjoy here, largely thanks to Lovett’s ability to step inside and feel at home in the music he loves. It’s just another one of the many hats that this cowboy wears so very well.
Essential Tracks: “Dress of Laces”, “Isn’t That So”