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Lyle Lovett
Step Inside This House
Curb/MCA

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
A&M

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.)

By the end, it's all too clear that Crow is the one in charge on The Globe Sessions, and in more ways than one. "Things should start getting interesting," Crow tosses off with carefree abandon in the bouncy Bob Dylan-penned "Mississippi," "right about now." Indeed.

-- Melissa Blazek

Groove Collective
Dance of the Drunken Master
Shanachie

If you're one of the many who've yet to fall under the graceful spell of Groove Collective, no sweat. There's still plenty of time to hop their kaleidoscopic fusion train. Since 1990, this amorphous New York City concept/band has existed within its own multi-stylistic, pan-cultural pod -- lovingly urban, playfully hip, a jazz ensemble splayed wildly out of sorts. Though seemingly impervious to prevailing trends, Groove Collective and its leader-by-default, flutist Richard Worth, leave the door wide open to whatever sounds might drift on in; the many influences that seep into GC's hyper-porous shell serve to nourish the whole.

And that's what Groove Collective has always been about: the good of the whole. Coming together almost by accident as the house band of sorts at Giant Step, a Manhattan jazz/dance club (yes, there is such a thing), Groove Collective is about as democratic as bands come, and Dance of the Drunken Master is but another constructive reflection of that loving democracy. GC's third full-length CD and the first since the demise of its own Giant Step label, Dance may well be the band's most accessible outing to date -- if anything by these career eclectics can be considered accessible. Befitting its title, the 14-track effort is immersed in a giddy, rhythm-driven party atmosphere. A bubbly, largely instrumental meringue of funk, soul, hip-hop, Latin influences (salsa, in particular) and, of course, jazz, -- though with less of an emphasis on the freeform implications of the latter than in the past -- it also boasts the seamlessly organic transitions of the most skilled turntablist. Dance holds together surprisingly well, given all that's going on, something that can't always be said for the group's more ambitious -- and, as such, sonically scattered -- earlier releases.

As usual, no egos run amuck on Dance of the Drunken Master, only enthusiasm -- and the best of global intentions. That's amazing in itself, considering the talent and the numbers involved: The band's beefy roster includes trumpet player Fabio Morgera, sax players Dave Jensen and Jay Rodriguez, conga player/percussionist Chris Theberge, vibraphonist Bill Ware III, drummer Genji Siraisi, keyboardist Jonathan Crayford, bassist Jonathan Maron and emcee/percussionist Gordon "Nappy G" Clay. Listing names has always been policy when it comes to getting a quality read on Groove Collective, as every member is as important as the other. Sounds like a perfect world to me.

-- Hobart Rowland

Marilyn Manson
Mechanical Animals
Nothing/Interscope

Consider this a fashion alert to all ebony-clad Marilyn Manson fans: It's time for an image overhaul. Out with the ripped fishnet stockings, headless dolls and copies of the Satanic Bible; in with red hair dye, frilly blouses and, perhaps, a computer software upgrade to accommodate your anti-idol's new world order. But there's good news for non-fans who might have dismissed Manson's storefront shock-rock in the past: Mechanical Animals is a surprisingly solid collection of rambunctious, intriguing glam-metal from the PMRC's Public Enemy Number One.

Animals harks back to the glittery '70s heyday of Bowie and T. Rex; its spacey influences (all songs are credited to "Omega and the Mechanical Animals") and bleak visions of the future would make a perfect soundtrack to a David Lynchian remake of Logan's Run. The best tracks -- "The Dope Show," "User Friendly" and the none-too-subtle "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)" -- rely equally on the guitar work of old pal Twiggy Ramirez and special guest Dave Navarro and Manson's half-sung/half-moaned (but wholly appropriate) vocal delivery to move them menacingly along. The lyrics, while predictable in their criticisms of current moral conventions, lash out at dope fiends almost as much as they do at prudish authority figures. On the futuristic side, Manson paints a soulless, black-and-white society with "Great Big White World," "Disassociative" and the eerily beautiful "The Speed of Pain." And though the drug imagery is everywhere (we get it, Marilyn, you like to get high), drugs are used as an opiate presumably to dull the senses in an increasingly remote society -- the philosophy of Timothy Leary taken to a more frightening extreme.

Partial credit for Mechanical Animals' overall listenability goes to Manson's co-producer Michael Beinhorn, who worked similar magic on Soundgarden's Superunknown and Hole's Celebrity Skin. Still, there's never any doubt who the real illusionist is. "I'm the new model / I've got nothing inside," Manson spouts on "New Model No. 15." Hold onto those receipts, kids; something tells me another evolution is on the way.

-- Bob Ruggiero

Gomez
Bring It On
Virgin

The members of Gomez are a little like a bunch of foreigners whose understanding of American culture comes from what they've seen on television. Only, in the young British quintet's case, that knowledge was gleaned from listening to old, obscure country and blues vinyl -- supplemented, no doubt, by heavy doses of Grateful Dead, Tom Waits and Little Feat.

Fortunately, though, Gomez isn't saddled by the adverse cultural baggage implied by those influences. Instead, such long-distance admiration has imbued the band with a swampy down-hominess, while sifting out all the hippie nonsense. This bluesy, postmodern approach has been successfully harvested by Beck, with whom Gomez also shares a love for funky wordplay (oddball song title of the year: "Love Is Better Than a Warm Trombone"), though not necessarily his deep love for old-school hip-hop. True, the seven-minute epic "Tijuana Lady" does boast an Odelay-like collage vibe, but the main thrust of the song revolves around an honest-to-goodness pop hook.

This isn't to say that Bring It On is always an easy listen. Of Gomez's three vocalists, Ben Ottewell sings with the most character; his hoarse rumble pretty much erases any overtures toward accessibility. The songs themselves have a loose, live-to-tape feel, their hidden pleasures unraveling with repeated listens: The slide-guitar atmospherics and mouth harp of "Here Comes the Breeze" combine for stoner fare just sophisticated enough for those too snooty to admit they like that sort of thing; the loping bass of "Get Myself Arrested" propels the song into a funky, sing-along jam worthy of the band's ersatz influences. In the end, Bring It On treats American music with the utmost respect -- and that means giving it a good thrashing when necessary.

-- David Simutis

Gomez opens for Eagle-Eye Cherry Sunday, October 11, at Instant Karma.

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