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The Country Lowdown

LYLE LOVETT, MY BABY DON'T TOLERATE (LOST HIGHWAY) Lyle Lovett has been stingy with originals of late, so fans welcome My Baby Don't Tolerate, the big-haired crooner's first batch of new tunes in seven years. Unfortunately, fans who love Lovett's nutty side may be disappointed with My Baby's straight-ahead approach. It's like last year's run-in with that ornery bull knocked the quirk right out of Lovett: These 14 tunes find him singing of ordinary things such as drinking coffee in the morning and reflecting on life on In My Own Mind; folks driving Cadillacs in Nashville; and a ditty dedicated to pickup trucks (The Truck Song, previously released on 2001's Anthology, Vol. I).

What we don't find are the ironic odes to kooks and witty songs about how much a man can despise his in-laws. There's nothing as laugh-out-loud whimsical as 1987's She's No Lady (She's My Wife), either.

Not that Lovett's songwriting is slipping. He's still a lyrical force to reckon with, but you may find yourself waiting for punch lines that don't come. Standouts include the Old South skewering of Election Day, peppered by spindly fiddle and rubber band bass; the bluesy title track; and the bossa nova flourishes of You Were Always There. Drawback: Opener Cute As A Bug is no clunker, but by now we know this formulaic Lovett-is-lovestruck ditty too well.

Sure, on My Baby, Lovett has traded eccentric for earnest, and though it's a shock, it's not a shame because he writes so well. Here's betting, though, that Lovett will become country's Woody Allen, plagued by fans who sigh, confessing, "We miss the early, funny stuff." B

GINA VIVINETTO, Times pop music critic

MERLE HAGGARD, HAGGARD LIKE NEVER BEFORE (HAG RECORDS INC.) Merle Haggard sounds craggy as he unleashes the chorus to his new album's title track. Long gone is the sonorous voice that soared on such 1960s classics as Sing Me Back Home and Swinging Doors.

Taking its place, though, is an instrument of rugged beauty that is equally compelling. "Life ain't getting any easier," Haggard wrote in the liner notes. We feel those sentiments as he sings. Haggard sounds weary. But that doesn't mean the 66-year-old still can't push some buttons.

On That's the News, the album's attention-grabbing single, Haggard questions U.S. foreign policy and the media's Iraq war coverage: "Politicians do all the talking/soldiers pay the dues/Suddenly the war is over/that's the news."

On Lonesome Day, a peppy dance hall number punctuated with horns, Haggard laments the loss of civil liberties. Then, between a pair of sweetly rendered love songs, Haggard reconnects with the hawkish persona he forged for himself during the late 1960s. "Pray God will bless America for doing what we dare," Haggard gruffly declares on Yellow Ribbons.

In addition to setting off political sparks and tugging at heart strings, Haggard has fun on the album, too, indulging his love of Texas Playboys-style swing on Garbage Man and swapping verses with old buddy Willie Nelson on the humorous Woody Guthrie cautionary tale Reno Blues (Philadelphia Lawyer).

Controversial, emotional and at times joyously playful, with a strong variety of musical accompaniment throughout, one could wish for little more in Haggard Like Never Before. A

_ WADE TATANGELO, Times correspondent

WYNONNA, WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW IS LOVE (CURB) A solo act for more than a decade, Wynonna returns with her first new offering in three years. Although she isn't getting heavy radio play like she did in the early 1990s, there is still a place for the 39-year-old's soulful country among the slicker Nashville stars such as Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

Toning down the growl she has injected into her past singing, Wynonna has created a collection that's sweet yet powerful. Wynonna is big on love this go-round. It's not just the theme of the title song; it permeates almost every track. Wynonna sings of love in general (It's Only Love), romantic love (Who Am I Supposed To Love, You Are) and the love of God (Rescue Me).

Even when Wynonna chooses to remake a rock ballad, it's about love. Foreigner's I Want to Know What Love Is lets her show off her pipes. The singer is joined by guitar legend Jeff Beck.

Another guest on the album is Wynonna's mother, Naomi Judd. Her vocals on the slow-tempo, down-home Flies on the Butter (You Can't Go Home Again) blend as perfectly with her daughter's as they did in their years as the Judds. B

_ SCOTT ZIPSE, Times correspondent

MARTINA MCBRIDE, MARTINA (RCA) Country music's most powerful female voice, Martina McBride, returns with her first collection of all-new material since 1999's Emotion. This time, McBride delivers socially conscious messages but forgoes some of the darker themes she has explored in the past.

The themes on Martina, her sixth studio album, include the strength of women, on the first single, This One's For The Girls, and the orchestral She's a Butterfly. McBride sings of the innocence and optimism of children on the cleverly crafted God's Will and In My Daughter's Eyes. What country album is complete without a song about keeping strong during rocky times with your loved one? McBride addresses this tried-and-true terrain on How Far.

McBride's sweet, powerful soprano is most effective on How Far and on a live version of Over The Rainbow.

Among guests on the album are Vince Gill, who lends his voice to Wearing White, and Ricky Skaggs, who plays mandolin and sings background on the bluegrass-tinged Reluctant Daughter. McBride's daughters, Delaney and Emma, join mom and Faith Hill on background vocals on This One's For the Girls. A

_ S.Z.

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