Lyle Lovett
Step Inside This House

Alternate title: Step Inside Lyle's Aesthetic. All things considered, the Houston-area resident's two-CD salute to his Texas singer/songwriter influences is a welcoming invitation into the very frame and foundation of his artistic structure. Lovett has consistently spoken in interviews of those who inspired him; but, as they say, it's always better to show than tell. This album is a revealing show-and-tell session featuring the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Eric Taylor, Willis Alan Ramsey, Walter Hyatt and other key contributors to Lovett's musical ethos.

A radio industry friend of mine noted how Step Inside This House is the perfect complement to some of the ground covered in writer Jan Reid's early-'70s Texas music tome, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. If a musically inclined alien were to land here and inquire about Texas songwriters, this handsomely packaged, gorgeously recorded set would make an excellent introduction. On the Guy Clark-penned title tune, Lovett sings, "Step inside this house, babe, I'll sing for you a song / It'll tell you about where I've been, it shouldn't take you long." Nonetheless, Step Inside This House is a work best savored at length, perhaps in a couple of hours of quiet time, as if strolling a gallery of Texas folk art.

And it definitely tells you where Lovett has been. In fact, some of the artists featured are the very ones he booked into a local coffeehouse during his tenure as a student at Texas A&M; he subsequently shared stages with them as an up-and-coming performer. And through no fault of his own, Lovett shows here why he has achieved a level of success surpassing that of his mentors -- the quality of their work notwithstanding. He doesn't try to ape these artists he admires (although the four Walter Hyatt tunes certainly make Uncle Walt's role in the Lovett oeuvre quite clear) but, rather, fashions their work to suit his style and personality -- in a way.

What that proves is just how intuitive a synthesist Lovett is. From the traditional tunes like "More Pretty Girls Than One" and "Texas River Song" on up to a song by his front-porch picking pal Robert Earl Keen, Lovett has smartly absorbed the lessons learned from the music around him. Think of it as the musical equivalent of Sir Isaac Newton's definitive quip: "I have seen further because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

And the cool thing about Lovett is that a good number of his giants are minor figures in the national consciousness -- David Rodriguez, Eric Taylor, Vince Bell. As much as this is a gift to his fans, it's also a financial boon for the writers involved, especially the estates of Hyatt and Van Zandt (each have four songs here). It's a move as gracious and focused as Nanci Griffith's Other Voices CDs, even if volume two of that project fell prey to overly expansive grandstanding.

Step Inside This House skirts that fate because it feels so incredibly personal. The gentle, acoustic-combo settings of most of the tunes imply a living-room intimacy that begs the title's analogy of home. Indeed, Step Inside This House is one of the loveliest and most seductive albums to come inside my house in some time.

-- Rob Patterson

Sheryl Crow
The Globe Sessions

It seemed that after her first two releases, 1994's Tuesday Night Music Club and the eponymous 1996 follow-up, singer/songwriter/classic-rock savior Sheryl Crow didn't have anything left to prove. She could write perfect pop-radio gems; she could romance packed arenas around the world; she could grace the cover of Rolling Stone, and, Lord knows, she could sell units --13 million of 'em, in fact.

But as solid and commercially successful as those first two releases were, it appeared at times that Crow was trying a little too hard to give the people exactly what they wanted. But freedom and time off work to some artists' benefit. Shimmering and self-assured, Sheryl Crow's third effort, The Globe Sessions, takes a stand and gives the people what they need. The result is as expansive and emotionally reckless as anything the Stones recorded during the volatile cusp of the '60s and '70s.

On the technical side, Globe Sessions digs deep into rich vintage guitar veins (ex-Revolutionary Wendy Melvoin spices up the first single, "My Favorite Mistake"), deceptively warm strings (courtesy of Lisa Germano on several tracks), fat horns (Glimmer Twins associate Bobby Keys gives great sax on "There Goes the Neighborhood") and sweet keys (two of modern rock's best atmosphere architects, Benmont Tench and Mitchell Froom, as well as Crow, play throughout). The album's ambient trickery (the strains of a shortwave radio open and close "Crash and Burn" with a delicious swirl) and intricate, layered production somehow manage never to detract from the songs themselves. And threaded with a strong personal narrative focus, the lyrics here read like an open manifesto about Crow's long journey coming into her own as a strong, sexy, savvy woman: She tosses out the wallpaper and the paintings, along with an ex-lover's memory, on "It Don't Hurt"; she examines her tangles with love with a renewed sense of purpose on the sultry "The Difficult Kind" ("There ain't nothing like regret / To remind you you're alive"). Crow even cuts loose and pokes some fun at the inevitable collision of sex and politics on the hidden track, "Subway Rides." (This one's for you, Bill.)

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