Recording of October 1988: Pontiac

Lyle Lovett: Pontiac
MCA/Curb MCA-42028 (LP), MCAD-42028 (CD). Willie Pevear, eng.; Tony Brown, Lyle Lovett, prods. DDA/ DDD. TT: 35:41

Jesse Winchester has been silent for seven years now, and we needed some mint-julep–voiced cowboy to write and croon such smooth, fluid, irresistible songs, no sharp edges and none needed, thanks. Thank God Lyle Lovett stepped in; we could have done much, much worse.

It would have been hard to better Lovett's eponymous 1986 debut LP (MCA 5748), a remarkable combination of state-of-the-art contemporary country songwriting, singing, and arranging. On the first few listens I wouldn't have said that Lovett had bettered it, but now I believe he has.

Side 1 of the LP is five urban country (read "slick") ballads, anthems, and waltzes, instantly singable not because they're necessarily predictable, but simply inevitably right. From the childlike, blank-versed cowboy mysticism of "If I Had A Boat" through the infectious "Give Back My Heart" to the falling chorus of "I Loved You Yesterday" and the strongly waltzing "Walk Through the Bottomlands," I kept scratching out my entry for Best Song of Album to fill in the name of whatever tune happened to be playing. That happens only once in a very blue moon (apologies to Nanci Griffith).

Side 2 is mostly city stuff, jazzy sax arrangements and chatty, stripped-down rhythm sections. Again, like Winchester, Lovett swings deftly between clear skies and smoke-filled rooms, but he's always fresh, inventive, and heartfelt. "She's No Lady," "M-O-N-E-Y," and "Black and Blue" are all gracefully gritty, soulful without forcing a thing. This is the kind of singing I've always thought James Taylor was on the verge of letting loose with, but he's never delivered. Also included are "Simple Song," with lines like these: "So hear my words with faith and passion, For what I say to you is true; And when you find the one you might become, Remember part of me is you"—and "Pontiac," a chilling character study of a lonely, obsessed WWII vet that Randy Newman could be proud of.

Lovett's sidemen are appallingly slick; I particularly enjoyed Harry Stinson's drums and Paul Franklin's pedal steel, and, of course, Emmylou Harris's backing vocals on two cuts (expect some of these songs on one of her future albums). Let's face it, funky this ain't; the arrangements are tasteful to the point of preciousness, a kind of chamber country music reminiscent of (again!) Winchester's Let the Rough Side Drag and Nothing But a Breeze. But no complaints, no complaints.

The all-digital recording is, shall we say, pristine: an antiseptically democratic sonic no-man's-land where instruments appear and disappear magically, but I really had to work to be offended—big deal. MCA, long known for the worst surfaces of any of the majors, has done a great job here; the transfer to LP is surprisingly good. The only difference I found was somewhat muffled highs, but that's just fine—the CD's sibilants are too hissy anyway.

Highly recommended in any format.—Richard Lehnert