Have you heard? Lyle Lovett, long rumored to be finished with that whole songwriting thing for good, has finally thrown his perfectly blocked cowboy hat back in the ring. His My Baby Don't Tolerate (Curb/Lost Highway), fresh on record store shelves this week, is distinguished by a splash of orange across the singer's customarily monochromatic album sleeve world.

You can't accuse Lyle of laziness in skirting the whole new-song thing. In the seven years since The Road to Ensenada, he has given us a world of diversions: a haunting double-album of covers, another disc's worth of standards he cut for various soundtracks, a hits comp, a live record, and a mostly instrumental soundtrack. At this point, his only available delaying tactic was to make a holiday LP.

Nothing on My Baby is going to startle longtime fans, and that's just the way most folks like it. The opener, "Cute as a Bug," is one of those upbeat, not-much-to-em tracks that is probably destined to get radio airplay until you can't stand the stench of it. (As with his old running buddy Robert Earl Keen, Lovett's lamest songs always seem to be the ones that catch on.) The two new songs from Lyle's Anthology - the one about a gal from S.A. and the one about the truck, which sound an awful lot alike - form the rest of the disc's good-timing backbone. Bringing up the rear is a pair of gospelly choir numbers that sound much like "Church" without the surreal punchline.

The stuff in the middle is what I was hungry for: a few new servings of the darker, more ambiguous material that Lovett has been dishing out (albeit in increasingly small doses) since 1986. An atmospheric, jazz-colored song called "You Were Always There" could be an elegy for Lovett's late father or a non-autobiographical song about a withered love affair; "In My Own Mind" has a little twist of lyric that might or might not snub the narrator's affectionate overtures dead in their tracks. One of the standouts, though, is a cover that would have fit well on Step Inside This House; Blaze Foley's "Election Day" saunters through the room with a friendly pessimism and is going on my personal mix-CD to be played until November 2004.

On the other spectrum of the Artist Activity Index is Elvis Costello, whose productivity may actually be increasing as he ages. String quartet collaborations, reunions with old rock buddies, duets and guest spots and actual new solo records litter his lengthy discography, and North (Deutsche Grammophon) is yet another New Thing - more or less. Not that far a cry from some of his other classical-leaning projects, North is a gentle song cycle written and arranged for strings, piano, and horns that would sound more at home in musical theater than in a rock club.

Starting with romantic crisis and ending with new love, Elvis goes so far as to serenade his new sweetie with upfront balladry hitherto unseen in the bitternik's canon: "Can you be true? Can this possibly be real? ... I long to hear you whisper my name ... I long to hold you all through the night ... And to tell you, my darling, you make everything seem right."

Okay: No matter how lovely, EC's followers may walk away from North wondering if they ever knew the man. Rhino comes to the rescue this month with another batch of three super-deluxe-ultra-maxi-mega reissues (each, as usual, with a second disc full of extras) to set the record straight.

Take, for instance, the romantic bliss of "Everyday I Write the Book," from Punch the Clock: The chorus may sound sweet and be fleshed out by chirpy backing vocals, but Elvis is singing about keeping score. He's noting his girlfriend's every transgression and cutting remark, so if he winds up with a broken heart he'll at least get to sell the reprint rights.

In a way, that's a bit of progress from his stance on the earlier Trust, where "Watch Your Step" claims he's not even listening. At least we can hope that North's affair (conducted, according to the rumor mill, with jazz singer Diana Krall) doesn't end up like the one snapshotted on Get Happy's "Riot Act": "Forever doesn't mean forever anymore ... Why do you talk such stupid nonsense?"

Oh well: If it does all go down the drain, Elvis can always reissue the lushly romantic North with a second disc of punk reprisals. •

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