Sharp-dressed men

It’s Not Big It’s Large
Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
(Lost Highway)

Lyle Lovett may tour plenty, but he is not the world’s most prolific songwriter. (His last new batch of songs was in 2003, the one before that way back in ’96.) So for those of us who admire his work, it’s hard not to expect a lot from a new LP. Then he goes and names it It’s Not Big It’s Large (Lost Highway), which of course begs comparisons to Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Not the smartest move this very smart artist has made in his life, given the big — sorry, the large — shadow that near-perfect record casts.

Anyway. The new record works hard to please, running Lovett’s road-tested crew of instrumentalists and backup singers through the paces from jazz (Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe”) to the traditional Southern lament “Ain’t No More Cane.” In between are tunes that you might swear were lifted from earlier discs and fleshed out with new lyrics, like the “Nobody Knows Me” ringer “The Alley Song”; sometimes, as with “Alley,” the new words are allusive and personal enough to make you wish the setting was fresh enough to invite more listening.

When he’s not delivering the kind of lightweight smartassery that gets him on the radio (“All Downhill from Here”), he does offer a couple of the more atmospheric, ruminative songs that earned his peers’ respect way back when. “Don’t Cry a Tear” is haunting, minimal in its lyrics but emotionally vast. The number that follows, “South Texas Girl,” surprises with an intro vocal by Guy Clark (far more surprising to me personally was Lovett’s mention of Palacios, the nowheresville coastal town where I grew up), then rambles through a lovingly nostalgic evocation of small Texas towns and the long pickup rides between them.

In addition to the regular CD version and a CD/DVD package, Large is reportedly being sold in some kind of “exclusive” version available only at Starbucks. Not sure what the characters in some of Lovett’s way-rural stories would think about the latter arrangement, but there you have it.

At My Age
Nick Lowe
(Yep Roc)

He’s no household name, was never married to Julia Roberts, and can’t afford to tour with a virtual army of top-notch sidemen, but these days Nick Lowe epitomizes the same kind of smarter-than-the-rest, countrypolitan savoir-faire that Lovett is known for. It’s been too long since 2001’s wicked-cool The Persuader, but the songwriter’s new At My Age (Yep Roc) is charming enough to make fans forgive his absence.

Cast in the same urbanely mellow mold as his last few outings, Age ranges from self-mockery and witty recriminations to numerous declarations of hope.

Like Lovett, Lowe enjoys writing the occasional uptempo ode to the unnamed girls in his life: “Long Limbed Girl” is as much a crowd-pleaser (this time about a youthful love the singer lost touch with) as any of the “girls” Lovett knew in South Texas or San Antonio, though in Lowe’s hands the woman in question feels more specific.

The album’s highlight is a killer one-two punch right near the start: Track three, “I Trained Her to Love Me,” stars a shark-like narrator who goes from woman to woman, winning each one’s heart and soul before dropping her flat: “I trained her to love me / and I’m gonna start workin’ on another, after this / and when I get that one in a state of bliss, betray her with a kiss”

What could make a man so heartless? Keep the disc spinning to track four, “The Club,” which details that world-upturning, embitterment-brewing kind of romantic betrayal that always feels singular but has played out the same for lovers throughout the generations.

Those two Battle of the Sexes numbers, though, are outweighed by those peering more specifically into love’s ins and outs, from the cautionary “People Change” (featuring the sudden and brief appearance of Chrissie Hynde’s distinctive wail in the background) to “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” a courtship tune sounding more like a declaration of imperial ambition.

Throughout, this white-haired smooth-talker shows that even the most sharply dressed man has chinks in his armor. The revelation comes more naturally to Lowe than it does to Lovett — though at the rate they write new material, neither man is exactly racing to shove his vulnerability down our throats.•