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By Michael Henningsen

NOVEMBER 23, 1998: 

Lyle Lovett

Step Inside This House (Curb/MCA)

Twenty-one songs, two CDs and not a big band in sight--Lyle Lovett has returned with a twin-pak of songs written by Texas artists from Townes Van Zant and Guy Clark to Robert Earl Keen and Eric Taylor. And essentially, his new offering is both a tribute to the artists Lovett has long cited as major musical influences and a crowning achievement for one of country music's saviors-come-lately.

Where many double albums are long-winded and unwieldy (especially those related to the country genre, excepting career retrospectives), Step Inside This House is a gloriously extended trek through the country backwoods of Texas music past and present. Instead of being a study piece, Lovett's latest begs to be longer--even the accompanying 25-page booklet avoids being overblown by featuring black and white photos of a pensive Lovett with some of the artists he represents here, along with reprintings of their song lyrics.

It's difficult to sift the most valuable gems from a bucket of diamonds such as this, but suffice to say that Lovett's renditions of the late Van Zant's "Lungs" and "Flying Shoes" and Steven Fromholz's "Texas Trilogy" are instant classics. The title track, penned by Guy Clark, is no slouch, either, when it comes to the yearning deep in the heart of Texas. The rest of the collection stands up nicely alongside the aforementioned tracks, in large part because there's no question that each of these songs deeply affects Lovett, who reconstructs and rekindles them through the strength, conviction and passion of his own vision. These are not just nods to musicians he was weaned on or grew up with; these are individual testaments to specific elements of Lovett's musical self, steeped in the magic that brought these songs to life in the first place.

Longtime Lovett collaborators and Nashville session musicians Matt Rollings (piano) and Russ Kunkel (drums) join Lovett here again, giving the album a familiar signature in combination with Lovett's acoustic guitar and clever voice. But the focus here isn't on what Lovett himself is trying to say; rather, the focus is to retell what has already been said from the perspective of one whose life has been monumentally altered and molded by the content. Step inside this house, and you'll never want to leave.

Archers of Loaf

White Trash Heroes (Alias)

From the opening guitar assault of "Fashion Bleeds" to the effected bass gurgling of the closing title track, the question as to why Archers of Loaf have decided that White Trash Heroes will be their last becomes increasingly difficult to answer. Remarkably, change has been good for this seven-year-old Chapel Hill band, and through various changes (including a short deal with Elektra Records), the band have made more expansive and interesting records one after the other without compromising their indie ethos or credibility. When just about no one thought a better indie rock record than Icky Mettle could be made, for instance, out came 1995's Vee Vee, punctuating the fact that here was a band with rightful claim to the throne. Then 1997 yielded All the Nation's Airports, revealing in some respects a more experimental band who had also managed to retain all the unrepentant and beautifully unpredictable power that adorned previous full-lengths and EPs. By that time, guitarist/vocalist and lead songwriter Eric Bachman had released a solo album under the Barry Black moniker and had compiled material for another that was released shortly after Airports. The Barry Black records delved more deeply into softer, more delicate elements of Bachman's style that had only barely trickled into the Archers' dynamic.

But with White Trash Heroes, Archers of Loaf have incorporated Bachman's penchant for melodies that slowly unwind and simple keyboard parts that fill the seams with subtle ambiance into the indie sound they are in large part responsible for creating, updating and maintaining as vital. If nothing else--and if this is indeed the final Archers record--this is the band that will have taught ferociously that maturation does not necessarily breed boredom or loss of spark.

--Michael Henningsen

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