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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.

As far as "Switched On" compilations go, Aluminum Tunes does a great job at satisfying the fan's desire for rarities by including three unreleased tracks and a couple of alternate versions of previously released tracks. It even includes an entire seven-track EP that was sold as part of an art exhibit by New York-based sculptor Charles Long (the tracks complemented Long's sculptures). It's nice to see these once rare yet essential Moogy, guitar-noise anthems receive the mass-produced treatment. Gane's attention to detail hasn't waned as Stereolab's recognition has grown. (Drag City, P.O. Box 476867, Chicago, IL 60647)

-- Hans Morgenstern

Zoobombs
Welcome Back, Zoobombs!
(Emperor Norton)

The promise of this Tokyo band is awesome. That fact is garishly, vividly illustrated by "Highway a Go Go," the first song on Welcome Back, Zoobombs! and one of the most devastating garage-punk numbers ever recorded. It has often been noted that rock's most primal, direct performances transcend verbal communication, that Little Richard, Hound Dog Taylor, and Johnny Ramone might have been speaking Japanese for all the import their specific word choices carried. Well, here, the singer -- Don Matsuo -- proves exactly that. He sings in Japanese, but for a rock-versed English-speaker there can be no question of what the song is about. From the feedback whine and evil chuckle that compose the intro to the frantic, organ-driven verse to the relentless guitar-and-drum-crashing, skidding, shouting-and-crashing-again sound of the chorus -- it's about rocking, and rocking hard.

Is it a surprise that Welcome Back, Zoobombs! doesn't achieve such heights again? Not really, considering that "Highway a Go Go"'s most revered antecedents are one-shot deals from bands like the Troggs, ? and the Mysterians, and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. The surprise is that it seems they didn't even make an attempt. The rest of the album, a reissue of the band's 1997 full-length debut in Japan (on a label called Ricetone; the band name reportedly comes from the Japanese word zubon, which means pants), -- approaches neither the rude volume nor the fever pitch of "Highway." Most of the other twelve tracks fall, not ineptly, into the crowded category of Jon Spencer/Beck-style blues-rap.

Catchy "Jumbo" is the best of these; it features a singsong chorus by Zoobombs female keyboardist, Mattaira. "The Swamp" and "Mojo Man" are more uptempo, with Matsuo's jarringly staccato vocal barrage providing a brighter point of interest than the band's competent riffing. Zoobombs' workaday mimicry takes a turn for the worse when the band shifts its attention from amped-up four-piece rock to trendier styles. Matsuo blurts out some stock rock phrases (like "You don't know how much I love you") in the frenetic "Midnight '69," but his broken English -- along with the song's rallying cry of "Sixty-nine!" -- suggests a novelty act better left to a band of lesser abilities. (Emperor Norton Records, 102 Robinson St., Los Angeles, CA 90026)

-- Adam Heimlich

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