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Grant Lee Buffalo
Copperopolis
Slash/Reprise

Copperopolis is hardly the triumphant, back-to-the-wall effort you'd expect from Grant Lee Buffalo after 1994's Mighty Joe Moon, a frequently brilliant near miss. If Mighty Joe Moon was the sonic equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet -- garishly beautiful in its melodic and structural bravado -- Copperopolis is a sobering reply to that heartfelt desire to be heard.

Wisely, bandleader Grant Lee Phillips narrows his thematic ambition on Copperopolis, opting for the more confined -- though no less challenging -- conceptual nook of a dying copper-mining town rather than scattering his narratives over Mighty Joe Moon's vast American landscape. And while life is bleak in downtown Copperopolis, a silver lining always seems to be within earshot. "Even the Oxen," "Bethlehem Steel" and "Hyperion and Sunset" free themselves of their dreary tempos and stark, surreal images through roomy, luxurious arrangements and gorgeous melodies. Phillips also manages to find a few grand-scale moments; "Homespun," for instance, takes a roundhouse swipe at the senseless hatred and displaced patriotism that permeate the militia movement, and with a musical accompaniment that's more than strong enough to carry its sermon.

While the leisurely pace of its songs tends to blur its overall impact, Copperopolis nevertheless unfolds in sharp focus -- made all the more so by Phillips' decision to go with his instincts at a point when he could have just as easily taken a more commercial route. So when he laments on "The Bridge," "You and me have our own bridge to cross / Weather worn and sea tossed," you get the feeling that, whatever happens, he'll make it to the other side in good shape. (*** 1/2) -- Hobart Rowland

Kermit Ruffins
Hold On Tight
Justice

Pleasant, palatable, reserved, low impact: these are probably not terms most jazz virtuosos would want attached to their work. Kermit Ruffins, however, plays with enough accessible good cheer to make Hold On Tight, his third Justice release, an example of a quality jazz just about anyone can appreciate. Ruffins has an uncanny ability to distill his music down to a specific, identifiable mood. Instead of beating his ideas to death, he does them a favor by letting up before their welcome is worn out. Thus, acrobatic playing and meticulous arranging take a back seat to spirit, resulting in 13 songs that define Ruffins' simple voice as spirited and melody minded.

Nothing here quite makes it out of the park, but no matter: Ruffins is clearly swinging for hits, not home runs. Reverberating with the warmth of Louis Prima, Ruffins' relaxed vocals are a comforting emcee for tracks such as the terrific original composition "Goodnight." With the exception of "Smokin'," a weak stab at R&B, and the subpar gospel-flavored "Lily of the Valley," Ruffins sticks to his strengths, using his voice and trumpet to lend a genuine personality to traditional jazz-swing numbers. Most of the playing is excellent; the only flaw of note is Roderick Paulin's occasional sax contributions. His suspect pitch and enthusiasm give the impression of someone who didn't take the time to really get to know the material. Ruffins may never have the originality or the chops of a Louis Armstrong or a Miles Davis, but he knows how to entertain. And he knows that good jazz doesn't have to hurt. (*** 1/2) -- Gerard Choucroun

Lyle Lovett
The Road to Ensenada
Curb/MCA

One hesitates to jump to historical conclusions about an artist who's likely still evolving, but from the looks of things, Lyle Lovett isn't getting any better. He's getting smoother, perhaps, and more at home with the hybridized big-band orchestration that's been one of his not-quite-country trademarks, but certainly not better. Lovett's best releases -- Pontiac and Lyle Lovett and his Large Band -- are great indeed, totally unexpected, left-field screwballs saturated with country dust, ballroom swank and some of the sharpest lyrical bombshells since the heyday of Mose Allison.

Who knows where it all went? But that it's gone is obvious by the first track of The Road to Ensenada, when Lovett demeans his past wit with "Don't Touch My Hat," a self-satisfied chuckler with all the predictability of a Texas heat wave. "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)" falls in the same category. Lovett has certainly been wickedly clever in the past, but he's never before stooped so close to pure novelty, and it's a shame to hear him doing so now. This CD's "Her First Mistake" is no "Here I Am," try as it might.

The music is pleasant enough, if you dig that Lyle Lovett Large Band mix of swing, jazz, ballad and country. But it never quite reaches out and grabs you. After three tracks, the whole shebang seems to fall flat. There are probably some fine, heartfelt lines buried in there, because Lovett's a smart man with a strange brain. But in turning toward the earnest ballad, he seems to be losing some of the smart-ass touch that set that earnestness in such satisfyingly high relief. There must be a hundred singers in Texas who can put together a pretty decent earnest ballad, but there was only one Lyle Lovett. Let's hope he comes back soon. (**) -- Brad Tyer

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