CD Review of It’s Not Big, It’s Large by Lyle Lovett and His Large Band

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It’s Not Big, It’s Large
starstarstarno starno star Label: Lost Highway
Released: 2007
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Even on an off day, Lyle Lovett is still one of the better songwriters in America – which is fortunate for him and us, because it’s been awhile since he was at the top of his game. With his eighth album of original material, It’s Not Big, It’s Large, Lovett settles deeper into the groove he started plowing with 1996’s The Road to Ensenada; the difference here being that he shares top billing with the Large Band on a studio album for the first time since 1989’s Lyle Lovett and His Large Band.

There’s a reason for the change – Not Big comes across as a very deliberate throwback to that breakthrough album, and in some respects, pulls it off more capably than its predecessor. In 1989, Lovett’s audacious blend of country, folk, swing, and jazz may as well have been Martian music to radio programmers and fans of mainstream country, and Large Band reflected how his label must have felt about his overall square peg-ness; it was sequenced straight down the middle, with nouveau big band stuff on one side and more straight-ahead country material on the other. Eighteen years later, a lot of Lovett’s influences have been more thoroughly absorbed into the country and Americana mainstream, and this album is a steadier, smoother whole.

The problem – as it’s been with Lovett for quite some time now – lies with the material. Again, even watered-down Lovett is much, much better than no Lovett at all. And there’s nothing technically wrong with these songs, nothing at all – but by inviting direct comparisons to the 1989 version of himself, Lovett offers the listener a bittersweet memory. Yes, everything you’d want to hear out of a Large Band album is here: Some uptempo dance numbers, some gentle ballads, even an instrumental. But there’s nothing offering the emotional impact of, say, “Nobody Knows Me,” and as a result, It’s Not Big, It’s Large remains stuck in the same pleasantly neutral gear Lovett’s been idling in for roughly a decade. Instrumental opener “Tickle Toe” has plenty of sprightly charm, “I Will Rise Up/Ain’t No More Cane” is majestically slow-building, and “All Downhill” offers plenty of his trademark wit (sample line: “I’ve been good and I’ve been bad / Mostly I’ve been bad”), just to offer a few examples, but Lovett has done all this stuff better; more than anything, these songs just make you want to hear the old tunes again.

He’s certainly earned the right to coast, but for listeners who want an album that provides a dancin’ good time and packs a wallop, this will be another immaculately crafted – yet ultimately inessential – addition to Lovett’s catalog.

~Jeff Giles