Lyle Lovett and His Large Band
"It's Not Big It's Large" Lost Highway Records
Lovett opens his latest with a Lester Young arrangement, "Tickle Toe," expertly delivered by his band that isn't quite big, but is large, and features all the clean orchestrations that make big band music stand out from anything else that's ever been popular.
That's followed by a traditional/Lovett arrangement: "I Will Rise Up/Ain't No More Cane" is a burner of a spiritual, made more dark by the horns that in most places would add light.
Everything else on the album is written by Lovett, and with a backing band like this, there's plenty of new life in what his fans might have come to expect. Guest appearances by Sam Bush on mandolin and excellent fiddle playing from Stuart Duncan nicely complement the gimmick Lovett's working here: solid country songs written to swing, directed by someone who knows what he's doing.
Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals
"Lifeline" Virgin Records
It's hard not to want more from Ben Harper.
He's quick to note on the inside cover of his latest, "Lifeline," that the thing was recorded in about a week, without the help of those new-fangled editing tools. But the product, which has some definite standouts - the single-worthy "Fool For a Lonesome Train" and the bluesy "Needed You Tonight" - sure does sound clean.
There's so much to work with here. But especially on "Needed You," you just want Harper to feel it, just a little bit more. He's got the songwriting abilities, the band - everything that could make "Lifeline" a pop-tinged study in modern blues.
He just doesn't have the blues.
"Lifeline" is alternately rich and empty, with tracks like "Say You Will" really wanting to work as a perhaps too-close-to-the-originals soul-tribute, and tracks like "Having Wings" working as empty radio-ready balladry.