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Lyle Lovett
Step Inside This House
(Curb)

Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett has indulged himself in musical styles as diverse as gospel-soul and brass-driven pop, but he leaves no doubt where his heart lies on Step Inside This House. The 21-song, two-CD set is rich with the rugged, lyrical storytelling that caught Lovett's imagination during his early years on the Lone Star State coffeehouse circuit.

Lovett was once a shy young journalism student at Texas A&M University, idolizing barroom bards such as Willis Alan Ramsey, Steve Fromholz, and the late Walter Hyatt. He soon graduated to sharing the stage with them, unsuspecting that his popularity would one day eclipse that of his mentors. They, like Lovett, were living and writing their own genre, one in which country, pop, soul, jazz, and folk intersected. It's territory that Lovett has richly defined through six critically acclaimed solo albums that have sold largely without the help of radio. With Step Inside This House Lovett uses his increasing star power to do something artistically risky and highly magnanimous -- an album of covers, featuring the songs of his favorites and friends and aimed at closing the chasm that separates them from the mainstream.

The record is a grand idea that works famously, uncovering a strong symmetry among the disparate songs and authors. The work of Ramsey, Fromholz, and Hyatt joins that of artists such as Eric Taylor, Michael Martin Murphey, Vince Bell, David Rodriguez, Robert Earl Keen, and the late Townes Van Zandt, and Lovett gives them all celebrity treatment. He sings the stuffing out of Taylor's "Memphis Midnight/Memphis Morning," where his emphasis deepens the contrast between two strangers just making it from dusk to dawn. He also nails Clark's title track and Van Zandt's "Highway Kind," both exquisitely lonely gems that are equal parts the traveling man's anthem and lament; the songs examine things acquired and people lost during a lifetime of playing the nomad, and the guitar.

Hyatt's range is the best-represented of the bunch, from the exceptionally poignant "I'll Come Knockin'" to the bluegrass swing of "Teach Me About Love." But among all the wonderful covers here, Fromholz's "Texas Trilogy" is the album's centerpiece. Part one, the wry, sleepy "Daybreak," reveals a small town waking up to frying bacon, bubbling hot coffee, the heat of the sun, and the plight of the unemployed. "Train Ride" is a remembrance of boyhood adventures by rail and dreams of the journey, thick with shiny black engines, card-playing passengers, and men selling ballpoint pens. Finally, "Bosque County Romance" follows the life of a strong-willed small-town teenage bride who chooses farm life only to have her youthful years slip away through financial hardship and drought. Lovett's performance of each of the three pieces is right on, as his graceful vocals ebb, flow, and break in time with the characters' emotions and memories.

Fans of the songs and songwriters featured on Step Inside This House will be thrilled by the effort Lovett put into getting each cut right. Those familiar only with the star himself will get a first-class introduction to the artists who inspired his work and kept him company on the way up.

-- Robin Myrick

Stereolab
Aluminum Tunes (Switched On Volume 3)
(Drag City)

Stereolab is quite a rarity in the snobbish world of indie rock. Guitarist/songwriter Tim Gane, an avid record collector, knows what it's like to be a fan, and his empathy for his own fans shows. In 1992 Gane reacted to Lab-head clamor for the re-release of the band's first three, limited-edition EPs (which go for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market), by compiling them on a CD he titled Switched On Stereolab. As Stereolab continued to release limited-edition EPs and seven-inches of studio outtakes, selling them exclusively at tour merchandise booths, the demand for more "Switched On" compilations grew. Aluminum Tunes is the third "Switched On" volume and the first to reach double-CD length.

The album is a varied, vibrant, and vital summary of the band's past four years. "Speedy Car" features relentless, frantic organ chords and horn loops that spin the harmonies of lead vocalist/keyboardist Laetitia Sadier and guitarist/vocalist Mary Hansen through a stereophonic hell. The hyperactive song is followed by the melancholy and subtle "Golden Atoms," a track that builds on the interplay of Duncan Brown's muffled high-toned bass hook and a squeaking Farfisa organ backed by Gane's low-fi guitar strumming and a single, sustained organ note. The track builds and builds until it shatters in an ecstatic cacophony of tambourine clatter and whining organs. In contrast, there's the simple harmonious beauty of "1000 Miles an Hour," which opens on a shimmering chord harmonized by the sustained sound of several organs, and oooo-ing female voices. It drones on like some old-school Philip Glass psychoacoustic experiment, while a synthesized piano meanders about as if its keys were being rustled by a lazy breeze. Then, propelled by throbbing drum beats, it explodes with buzzing layers of guitars.

Aluminum Tunes is more than a collection of somber sonic experiments. Stereolab has a grand flair for pop, as well. Covers of the theme from "Get Carter" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "One-Note Samba" and "Surfboard" are testaments to the band's pop roots. The bouncing groove of "Munich Madness," which benefits from some of Sadier's finest French-sung vocals, proves Stereolab can drop its high concepts for a bit to create a pure pop song.

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