NICK LOWE/BRINSLEY SCHWARZ/ROCKPILE

OVERVIEW:
I like to think of Nick Lowe as the McCartney to Elvis Costello’s Lennon. Even though Elvis and Nick were never technically in the same band together, Nick produced all the early Attractions albums and shares a very similar sensibility. But he’s got a MUCH friendlier recorded persona. His melodies and ideas are usually more laid back and immediate. Indeed, Mr. Lowe is one of the most instantly likable artists I’ve ever heard, and with his various projects (including early pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz and supergroup Rockpile), he put out some truly fantastic pop music. As far as late-70s/early 80s new wave pop goes, he’s certainly one of the best songwriters out there and his first run of solo albums can stand up next to anyone’s. “Jesus Of Cool” is one of the signature albums of its era. Lowe is also an incredibly tasteful and professional fella – there are very few missteps in his catalog. The problem is: he’s not much of a risk taker, and most of his recorded output sounds too fluffy and casual to make a major impression. But if you like Costello and/or good hooks, you owe it to yourself to check the man out!

THE ALBUMS:

Brinsley Schwarz (Brinsley Schwarz)
Despite It All (Brinsley Schwarz)
Silver Pistol (Brinsley Schwarz)
Nervous On The Road (Brinsley Schwarz)  *
Please Don’t Ever Change (Brinsley Schwarz)
The New Adventures Of Brinsley Schwarz (Brinsley Schwarz)
Jesus Of Cool *
Labour Of Lust  *
Seconds of Pleasures (Rockpile)
Nick The Knife  *
The Abominable Showman
Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit
The Rose Of England
Pinker And Prouder Than Previous
Party Of One
The Impossible Bird  *
Dig My Mood
The Convincer
At My Age
That Old Magic

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BRINSLEY SCHWARZ  (BRINSLEY SCHWARZ) (1970)

C-

To be kind, let’s call this a formative work and push on into the gallery of solid Nick Lowe-related records. No? Must we stop and examine this amateurish early work, the first major release of Lowe compositions? Well, I suppose we must. It IS an important release in the life of Lowe and pub rock in general. Of course, no one seems to care much about the MUSIC herein. But there’s a funny rock and roll legend coupled to this mediocrity. Apparently, in an act of unfounded machismo, the band’s then publicity team decided to put them on a bill at the Fillmore with Van Morrison and Quicksilver Messenger Service (not a bad pairing, considering how much Lowe and co. were “indebted” to both those acts at the time!) They also flew out a handful of British journalists to review the band, in the hopes of breaking them big. The event was a disaster, however, complete with travel issues, technical grievances, and drunkenness, among other tomfoolery. It all led to the band’s unanimous dismissal by that same British press courted so brazenly by that publicity team. In retrospect, it’s obvious why the press panned the band, and particularly this record. It’s crap! And not only crap – derivative crap with no personality! Lowe hadn’t even come close to finding a voice as a song-writer, and the whole vibe here is one of stoned incompetence. The production blows, the songs range from lifeless to dull to passable mediocrities, it’s all far too obviously cribbed from other bands (CSNY, Grateful Dead), and the band sounds like they’re falling asleep at the wheel half the time. These guys would get better immediately afterwards, but this is an incredibly weak product lacking hooks and flair. There are some decent moments – “Shining Brightly” has a cute if obvious melody, and the harmonies could be a lot worse. Each side closes with a terrible “jam” song, neither of which produces even one shred of the sparks exhibited on similar material by the Dead. “Lady Constant” has a hilarious accapella moment in the middle where the band suddenly sounds like early Yes – it’s so out of place and dated, it ends up as the most entertaining moment on the entire sleep-inducing album! Of course, there is a pointedly and PURPOSEFULLY “sleepy” quality to the music here, quite different from on other Lowe and Brinsley albums where everybody sounds professional and rocking. You might call it a psychedelic feel, but I chalk it up to more of a tentative lack of direction than anything else. I can’t say this is the worst record I’ve ever heard – it’s not THAT bad, mostly just boring. But it’s certainly the worst record Lowe would ever lend his talents to! The man would soon become good-taste personified, yet there’s nary a trace of that taste to be found on this dated piece of hippie crud. Pass it up, kids.
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DESPITE IT ALL  (BRINSLEY SCHWARZ)  (1970)

B-

A huge step up from the debut, even if the band is still a bit too derivative to really make a major dent in my hardened heart. This time they drop the outright CSN stealing and push more for a Band/Byrds hybrid (with a hefty dose of Van Morrison). They’re surprisingly successful at the sound, though they’d get even better on the next record. Too often here they’re stuck in sleepy rambling debut mode, and there are moments that read more Lynyrd Skynyrd than Levon Helm. There’s just no real IDENTITY on display yet, and while Lowe would eventually be responsible for a whole of bunch of records exuding quirky personality and huge pop hooks, it’s not particularly enlightening to hear these duller roots. The record opens and closes with its strongest tracks, always a good way to win over the listener (ending an album with a whopper makes for a more enjoyable listening experience, even if the middle of the album blows chunks, for one can anticipate the impending joy while suffering through the immediate chaff….). “Country Girl” kicks things off with a totally catchy harmonized chorus hook straight out of the Byrds songbook. It’s certainly the most successful early Schwarz tune. The closer is 7 minute “Old Jarrow,” a minor key rollicking banjo driven folk rocker which evokes The Band’s “King Harvest (Will Surely Come)” as well as a bunch of Basement Tapes songs. It’s a cool groove, the band sounds excellent, and the “one more time around” hook ground the song perfectly. While the rest of the album ain’t quite as strong, it’s all far more professional and exciting than the limp debut. “The Slow One” is total Van the Man, with one of those slowly grooving rootsy melodies and all sorts of phrasing ideas calling Morrison to mind. There’s a nice vibe and atmosphere to the track, but the composition is a bit lackluster (to the band’s credit, a lot of Van tunes fall similarly flat for me). There’s a sweet organ part in that song. “Funk Angel” is warm and sunny swinging roots rock, and “Star Ship” is a prety piece of simple harmonized Americana. It’s all very unassuming and down to Earth, with a friendly melodic energy and an obvious love for the appropriated sounds. The weakest tracks – “Piece of Home” and “Ebury Down”  – exhibit a directionless sluggishness akin to the debut, but they’re both more assured than those earlier tracks. Had the band never released another album, I might have awarded this a higher rating – I’m truly impressed by the jump in quality on display, especially after the disastrous publicity campaign surrounding the debut (enough to break a band’s spirit). Luckily, these guys pushed on, got better, and they’d get even better in the coming years! This is still a bit too tentative in spots, and there’s too much other phenomenal Lowe-related material to hear, so I can’t recommend the record too highly. But it’s a nice listen, anyway.
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SILVER PISTOL  (BRINSLEY SCHWARZ)  (1972)

B

With the addition of guitarist and songwriter Ian Gomm, the band takes another big leap forward. This time they put the focus squarely on rootsy song-wrting and leave behind completely the lengthy jams and stoned excursions. And though the band wouldn’t quite arrive at their trademark “pub rock” sound until the next album, in certain respects this is the band’s most ambitious release. Now, if you’re not intimate with the first three The Band records and The Basement Tapes and late 60s Dylan, you really should get into those before you pick this one up. This entire record is a pretty obvious tribute to The Band – and not a half-tribute like Elton John doing “Tumbleweed Connection,” or a commercialized bastardization like The Eagles. This record is going for LITERALLY the exact same vibe and atmosphere as the Big Pink derived records from the late 60s. I’m not sure how to deal with the fact that these fellas were all Brits – I can’t forget that The Band themselves were mostly Canadian! But there’s something strange about British dudes approximating this sound so closely. When the Stones play vintage Bluesy tunes, or even country folk music, it works just fine. But here we see the band adopting those redneck-y Band voices, and playing with that same perfectly sloppy organ-driven behind-the-beat feel, and for some reason it strikes me as bizarre. Maybe it’s the equivalent of an American musician taking on a Cockney accent and playing music-hall Kinksy stuff. Who knows? In any case, these guys have certainly done their homework. They aren’t nearly as good as The Band – who could be? – but they get close enough to provide an enjoyable if highly derivative 42 minutes. The strong song-writing is the main reason they get away with their “borrowing” – had this material fallen as flat as their debut, the handful of Richard Manuel vocal impressions would have sounded downright obnoxious. Instead. I feel like I’m listening to Band outtakes in an alternate universe. There’s also a very brazen Dylan country period lift – “The Last Time I Was Fooled” – and the track proves that someone doing a Bob will never sound as great as Bob himself. It’s an energy thing – hard to fully describe – and even though the song gets a lot of the moves right, and the band clearly loves the music they’re paying homage to, it just doesn’t sound authentic. These guys would eventually come into their own sound – a simpler and dopier sound, true, but still much more idiosyncratic. You can hear it already on a few of these tracks, particularly the two Jim Ford covers at the end of the record. There are some really strong songs on here that bolster the still formative group dynamic, with Ian Gomm arguably showing up Nick Lowe in the writing department, His three tracks shine brightly on here – the shuffling Byrdsy “Dry Land,” the Nashville Skyline-esque “One More Day,” and especially the beautiful rambling “Range War.” Nick turns in some winners too, such as the most obvious Band-like track “Merry-Go-Round,” with it’s warm harmonized chorus, and the lovely “Unknown Number.” The whole record is warm and pleasant, with no duffer tracks or obviously bad moves. It’s a nice transition for the band into total professionalism, and the first time you can really hear the nascent brilliance in Mr. Lowe.  If you’re interested at all in this pub rock ensemble, this is one of their signature records and a necessary listen.
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NERVOUS ON THE ROAD  (BRINSLEY SCHWARZ) (1972)

B+

This is the first real Brinsley Schwarz record, as far as I’m concerned. At least, it’s their first record that sounds confident, distinct, and similar to the “pub rock” style everyone seems to believe they had a major hand in establishing. The band sounds tighter than ever before, the production “pops” as if someone finally learned how to record the fellas, and the band basically drops their schtick of ripping off every great late-60s American roots rock band. Instead, they just imbibe the rollicking spirit of those bands and forge ahead with a far more stripped down old-school rock sound and a “working man’s” energy. Coupled with the strong hook writing, and the forceful vocalisms, it’s easy to understand how this band helped forge the sound of the “angry young men” of the late-70s (Costello, Joe Jackson, Graham Parker). Though of course you could argue they LITERALLY forged that sound, since Nick Lowe produced a ton of those records himself. Anyway….it’s obvious that something major has happened within this group – the band sounds fantastic and everyone seems incredibly comfortable. The first side of the record is a total jam, with 5 stellar tunes that range from the intricate blues rock of the title track, to the tender soulful ballad “Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love,” to the bouncy classic R&B style of “Happy Doing What We’re Doing. ” We also get Ian Gomm’s cute and catchy keyboard driven opener “It’s Been So Long,” and my personal favorite – Nick Lowe’s sweet pop song “Surrender to the Rhythm.” That last track is the first obvious sign of Nick’s solo stylings, and one of his best songs with this band. Side 2 doesn’t measure up to the A-side at all, but it’s still charming enough in its old-fashioned way. There are two early rock ‘n’ roll covers, both drenched in that newfound friendly “pub rock” vibe and both extremely well performed. Bob Andrews plays some killer electric piano on a lot of this record, which contributes to the warm homespun atmosphere. Throw back a drink, friends, we’re gonna do another number! “Brand New You, Brand New Me” is a decent slow burning Lowe ballad with a Stones-y feel (though much less edgy than the Stones). And Lowe’s heartbreaker “Why Why Why Why” closes out the record with some beautiful harmonies, though the song itself sounds underwritten to me. That leaves the album’s only major piece of cruddy filler – the utterly dull blues rocker “Feel A Little Funky” which sounds as generic and lifeless as its title. But even that dud track can’t take away from the feeling of consistency and confidence that permeates this record. The band has finally found their voice – it may not be as epic as The Band’s, or as dreamily magical as The Byrds’, or as searing as Dylan’s, but they own it, and they sound great performing it. This is routinely labeled as their best album, and while they’re not really an “album” band (a compilation would suit these guys wonderfully), I’d have to agree with that assessment. I could see an argument for “Silver Pistol,” but that’s only because I prefer lightweight Band/Dylan to heavyweight pub rock. But that’s exactly what this is: heavyweight motherfucking pub rock, bitches.
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PLEASE DON’T EVER CHANGE  (BRINSLEY SCHWARZ)  (1973)

B-

The low rating here reflects the slapdash, tossed off nature of this record rather than some distressing drop in quality. The level of playing and assuredness in style/tone haven’t lessened from the previous album – there are indeed some great performances and decent compositions on here. But this record is actually more a compilation of singles, live tracks, and outtakes than the genuine article. Four out of these ten tracks are covers, and one of the covers is a throwaway Bob Marley instrumental. Another cover is a live version of Ronnie Self’s rockabilly “Home in My Hand,” which rocks really hard and shows off the band’s live appeal. It’s a killer rock and roll song performed by an expert ensemble, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a live cover on what  I understand was promoted as an actual follow-up to “Nervous On The Road.”  I could be wrong about that, and it might have been clear to fans that this was a marking time compilation. Anyway, the title track is best thing on here by a long shot. It’s a Goffin/King cover, but I personally hadn’t heard it before listening to this record – and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The harmonies, the melody, the atmosphere – all perfect. A great song, and one of the best tracks these guys ever produced. And more proof that Carole King was once a hell of a songwriter. “Speedoo” is given a full-on 50s arrangement, with an awesome Sun Studios vocal effect and some great horn parts.  Elsewhere, none of the originals on here leave much of an impression on me – they’re all nice and warm, and glide by smoothly, but they’re just too slight. They mostly sound like outtakes from the previous record. Nick Lowe contributes a cute reggae pastiche called “Why Do We Hurt The One We Love,” a 50s soul pastiche called “I Worry (Bout You Baby),” a fun but generic 50s boogie woogie R&B tune called “Play That Fast Thing (One More Time),” and a dumb Latin pastiche called “Down in Mexico” that threatens to rips off the “Under The Boardwalk” melody but opts for a more boring one instead. He also gives us a GOOD song called “I Won’t Make It Without You,” which is basically your standard 50s-styled heartbreak ballad, but it gets by with a nice organ part and a strong Lennon-esque vocal. Iam Gomm opens the record with the fluffy pub rocker “Hooked On Love.” Were that song recorded in the 80s with glossy commercial 80s radio production, it would sound exactly like Huey Lewis And The News. You get the picture – there’s basically no substance whatsoever on this platter. As an outtakes comp it’s above average, as a proper followup to “Nervous On The Road” it’s a mess and a huge step backwards, and so I’m ratiing it somewhere in the middle.
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THE NEW ADVENTURES OF BRINSLEY SCHWARZ  (BRINSLEY SCHWARZ)  (1974)

B-

Oddly enough, this thoroughly mediocre swan song opens with by far the band’s best ever production. Indeed, it’s one of the best pop songs of the 70s, and arguably Nick Lowe’s most famous composition. Granted, it owes it’s fame to a more famous cover version. But there’s no denying the greatness of the original “(What So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding.” And I personally find this version of the song even BETTER than the far more famous Elvis Costello one (which of course Nick Lowe produced). We’re not dealing with an “All Along The Watchtower” situation, where a second artist discovers the heart of someone else’s less inspired track. Brinsley Schwarz’s version of the track loads on some gorgeous backing vocals, and the production is both poppier and warmer than Elvis’ more aggressive version. It’s also the first real example of the great early Nick Lowe solo sound – an exuberant mix of pure pop and pub rock with an easy-going swagger, buttery harmonies, and new wave-y production. It’s just a fantastic soulful track with a classic melody and some profoundly catchy lyrics. Sadly, not one of these other songs comes within a football field of the opener’s brilliance. They’ve brought in Nick’s future Rockpile buddy Dave Edmunds to produce, and they’ve dialed back the pub rock in numerous places in favor of a poppy soul blend that sometimes borders on the banal. I’m not really sure what to make of the 2nd track – ” Ever Since You’re Gone.” It’s this electric piano driven sexy soul ballad, but it falls strangely flat. Marvin Gaye might have made it work, but Nick Lowe just sounds out of element here. There’s a little Todd Rundgren and Daryl Hall in the grooves, and I assume Nick is slightly joking when he sings lines like “I’m the party pooper”  – plus there’s a pretty nice chorus hook and some more sweet harmonies. But the track doesn’t work too well as either soul pastiche or straight up Blue Eyed soul, and those horn solos just scream corny at me. “I Like You, I Don’t Love You” is another Motown tribute, but it’s an uptempo rockin’ one, and it works a bit better. Elsewhere we get two generic pub rockers – “Down in the Dive” and “Small Town Big City” – and a couple decent covers – The Hollies’ “Now’s The Time” and the Otis Clay single “Trying To Live My Life Without You.” There are two songs that stand up to “Peace, Love, And Understanding” without getting completely overshadowed. “I Got The Real Thing” is credited to both Ian Gomm and Lowe, and while the verse is dull underwritten pub rock, the chorus is a glorious Doo Wop winner and the only truly salvageable thing on here after the classic opener.  “The Ugly Things” is nice simple Lowe acoustic ballad, though he’d soon be writing some much better songs in this style and this one feels like a warm-up more than anything else. Overall, this was NOT a great way for the band to go out – if the album were more consistent, it’d probably be considered a minor classic based on its famous opening track alone. Instead it feels like a genius single, and a bunch of weak B-sides.
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JESUS OF COOL  (1978)

A+

I’m going to be blunt. This is a a classic pop album. It’s hands down the best Nick Lowe album. It’s easily one of the best records of the late 70s. There are very few records that showcase this high a level of variety, skill, melodic brilliance, and production prowess. There’s also a total ease of presentation that makes the record feel incredibly comfortable and breezy, while still kicking your ass on all the necessary pop fronts (creative arrangements, great melodies, great vocal performances). This is Nick’s “encyclopedic” record, confirmed by the album cover which presents us with “the many faces of Nick Lowe.” Just like Todd Rundgren’s “Something/Anything,” or more famously The Beatles’ self-titled “White” Album, this record careens from style to style and everything teeters on the verge of pastiche without ever falling over. The end result may be a bit show-offy, but only a true pop talent could pull off this many sounds and render them all basically perfect. Nick tries out reggae, new wave, disco-pop, acoustic balladry, straight up rock and roll, soul, and bouncy Brit Pop on here. There are a lot of lush harmonies lathered all over this, and he switches vocal approaches multiple times. All these music geek experiments could have added up to a cold and mechanical record, but the amazing thing here is how natural and warm this all sounds. Lowe has never been this experimental or quirky, and he never will be again. But even so – this is probably his most immediately likable album. I’ve never played this for anyone who didn’t latch onto it instantly. It’s just remarkably catchy and accessible. “I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass” is the disco pop one, and it’s got a hook to die for. “Little Hitler” has a hilarious lyric coupled to a gorgeous and very Elvis Costello-esque ballad full of creamy backing vocals. “So It Goes” and “Marie Provost” are two of the most exciting and perfectly written pop singles I’ve ever heard. “No Reason” and the Jim Ford cover “36 Inches High” are both moodier and weirder than anything else on here, but they’re also both brilliant growers with offbeat arrangements and tons of atmosphere. “Nutted By Reality” is a two part song that starts as a fun Jackson 5 pastiche and turns into Nick’s “Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da” – a bouncy and utterly infectious “island” groove. These songs are all canon level genius, and I really think this is one of the ultimate “hidden pop classic” records. It ain’t perfect – opener “Music For Money” serves more as a funny overture than a great song in its own right, and though they rock quite nicely, both “Shake and Pop” and the live closer “Heart Of The City” belong more to the standard pub rock pile of Brinsley Schwarz and later Lowe releases. But those tracks hardly take away from the greatness of the others. This is a low-key masterpiece, and the best album Nick Lowe would ever make. (BTW – the American version of this album was re-titled “Pure Pop For Now People” and included two additional tracks. “They Called It Rock” is a throwaway pub rocker, but “Roller’s Show” is a hilarious and very melodic parody of the Bay City Rollers fan-base. Add “Roller’s Show” to the UK version, and you’ve got yourself an even STRONGER album. Gotta love Nick Lowe in 1978 – it’s the year he made this album and produced the similarly classic “This Year’s Model” by Elvis Costello & The Attractions. Now that’s one crazily talented dude 1978 fella!)
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LABOUR OF LUST  (1979)

B+

A totally different kind of record than Nick’s debut, and one that lays down the groundwork for his subsequent records far more than did that amazing debut. Instead of whipping up another genre-bending encyclopedic pop monster, Nick decided this time to make a more straight forward rock record with his new band Rockpile. Rockpile was an accidental group of sorts featuring Nick and Dave Edmunds, plus a guitarist and drummer that had worked with both men previously (Billy Bremner and Terry Williams). Apparently, the band was an absolutely incredible rock behemoth in concert.  When it came time to make a record, they spread a bunch of new material over a self-titled album, a couple Dave Edmunds records, and this Nick Lowe solo album. These guys do rock, and they’re insanely pro, and they create a lot of “vibe” in the studio. But they’re also a bit meat and potatoes in their approach – this album is far more laid back and simple than the previous one, and the high points aren’t nearly as high. This is more of a natural progression from Nick’s Brinsley Schwarz days than his work with concurrent new wave artists like Elvis Costello. And indeed, it opens with a song that dates back to the Brinsley days, a song that happens to be Nick’s all-time most famous but for whatever reason never really clicked for me. “Cruel To Be Kind,” the song is called, and you’ve probably heard the chorus before. It’s a nice song, very well produced and very well written. The hook is certainly pleasant and memorable. But sometimes nice songs just don’t work for you, and this is one of those times for me. I find the tune obvious and corny. Oh well! The rest of the album hovers around the same “very nice” level, and that’s true of most of Nick’s later career. He’s so tasteful and competent that he VERY rarely drops below the level of “super enjoyable fluff,” but I personally wish he could have come up with a true sequel to “Jesus Of Cool” rather than shifting gears into simpler rootsier territory for the rest of his days. This is one of the better post-Jesus abums, though, for sure. The production is still very late-70s, Nick’s voice sounds great, and as I mentioned previously, you couldn’t really ask for a more solid backing band. You COULD, however, ask for more exciting arrangements and quirkier material. But that’s just not what this record is all about. I’m sorry to sound so negative – it’s more a personal stylistic disappointment rather than an actual quality drop that prompts my lower rating here. There are definitely some big winners, and the whole record is rock solid. Like most of Nick’s solo records, not a note sounds contrived or ill-conceived. “Skin Deep” has an incredible chorus, and “American Squirm” is another one of those beautiful acoustic shuffling ballads a la “Little Hitler” (though a bit less successful than that one – I love the bridge anyway). “Endless Grey Ribbon” is one of Nick’s best ever country tunes and “Big Kick, Plain Scrap” is a fun and weird and percussive new wave track with an amazing drum sound. You’ve gotta dig the “you’re so nice on drugs” hook. Really every thing on here matters – there are lots of fun hooks, even if they’re simpler hooks in simpler clothing.  It’s one of the major Lowe releases, especially due to the mammoth “Cruel To Be Kind” single, and well worth checking out.
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SECONDS OF PLEASURE (ROCKPILE)  (1980)

B

This is a solid and very old-fashioned rock and roll album with just enough new wave tension to render it “contemporary.” Even though it’s concerns are almost entirely traditionalist, the focused production and constant fast-paced energy put it way above the ranks of your average 50s cover band. Rockpile was comprised of Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, guitarist Billy Bremner, and drummer Terry Williams. This was the only actual Rockpile-credited album, though the same lineup appears on multiple records from this period – including Nick’s “Labour of Lust,” a Rockpile album in all but name. There aren’t a lot of originals on here, but this album still belongs on a Nick Lowe page due its sonic similarities to “Labour,” and the handful of new Lowe compositions in its grooves. The best original track here is definitely the 50s-inspired soul rocker “Heart,” soon to show up in a different form on Nick’s next record. It’s a fantastic and enthusiastic rocker, totally energetic and passionately performed. These guys were clearly interested in stripping the pretense away from new wave and punk- getting back to rock and roll basics. Sometimes it’s boring, but tracks like simple and enchanting tracks like “Heart” make a major case for these stylings. None of the other new songs matter much to me – I really can’t remember a thing about either “Pet You And Hold You” or “Fool Too Long,” though I know this entire record is perfectly enjoyable while its playing. It’s just so fluffy and inconsequential. Some of the covers fare way better. Edmunds turns in a great vocal performance on Joe Tex’s “If Sugar Was Sweet As You” and the band opens Side 2 with an excellent and uber-melodic Squeeze composition – “Wrong Again (Let’s Face It).” The band even “covers” a Nick Lowe tune dating back to Brinsley Schwarz, “Play That Fast Thing One More Time,” but I liked the relaxed pub rock original better than this supercharged boogie woogie one. There’s nothing remotely ambitious or unique about this record. It’s just old school pop and roll, played with fire and grace. If that’s enough for you, you’ll love it. If you want MORE from Mr. Lowe, you’ll find yourself in my boat – happy that it exists, but indifferent to ever hearing it again.
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NICK THE KNIFE  (1982)

A

Now THIS is one underrated record! It’s easily my second favorite Lowe album, and though it’s charms are subtler and less expansive than “Jesus Of Cool,” it’s a much better followup than the too straight-forward “Labour of Lust.” Nick brings back the quirkiness and exuberant melody writing on here in a big way. The entire record lasts 34 minutes, and there’s barely a wasted one. It’s all taut and perfectly executed new wave pop. There’s a lot of variety, great gobs of wit and energy, and Nick’s singing melts my heart as usual. The band sounds excellent on here – Nick has parted with Edmunds by this point, though he’s hanging onto the Rockpile rhythm section. Speaking of Rockpile: one of the highlights here is a slowed down dubby version of the fantastic “Heart” from Seconds of Pleasure. This incarnation of the song just as good, proving both the greatness of the melody as well as Nick’s prowess as an arranger and producer. The giant highlight, and one of the absolute best Lowe songs on record, has to be “Raining Raining,” a soulful ballad that’s so jaw-droppingly gorgeous it’s hard to believe it took until 1982 for someone to write it. It’s got all over it those doo-wop-inspired background vocals that Nick employed all over his debut, and the melody gets me every time I hear it. It’s pretty much a perfect pop song. There’s nothing even close to it on the previous Lowe record, which usually gets far more praise than this one. There’s a total grace and warmth and catchiness that permeates this entire release – I really can’t imagine someone disliking most of this material. “Too Many Teardrops” nearly invents the groove from “Every Breath You Take” a year before Sting and co, but the context is admittedly quite different! It’s a smooth and soulful pop number with a stellar descending bass refrain. The band gets to funk it up (excellently) on the wonderfully Jackson 5-esque “Let Me Kiss Ya.” Classic new wave popper “Stick It Where The Sun Don’t Shine” has a genius phrasing hook in its chorus (“either rejoin the rattle or listen to your battle”)…Even the novelty toss-offs sound great on this record. The 50s doo wop parody “Ba Doom” has a way better melody than it needs to. The swampy “One’s Too Many (And A Hundred Ain’t Enough)” elevates a simple 50s novelty song-type track via quirky production. The record closes with the storming “Zulu Kiss,” another heavy percussive beast a la “Big Kick, Plain Scrap” and a handful of Costello tracks from the era. On top of all the greatness I just mentioned, this is one of the only Lowe records with NO covers. It’s an essential release from the man, and one of the best new wave era records in existence.
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THE ABOMINABLE SHOWMAN  (1983)

B

I won’t call this a crashing disappointment, but it’s a pretty big one. Nick Lowe rarely releases anything less than tastefully and expertly performed. Nearly all of his records have at least a few good hooks, and this one’s no exception. But from here on out, he’d never again get back to his original new wave sound. He’d also never release another mind-blowingly tight pop record. Things get scattered and confused from now on, sorry to say, but most every record is still pretty impressive nonetheless. He doesn’t change up his style in any major way – he just pulls back on the quirkiness and propulsion and “punk” spirit, and pushes himself into more oft-tread singer-songwriter territories. It’s basically where he came from with Brinsley Schwarz, and in the grander context of his career, it’s actually the new wave era that stands out as an anomaly. On THIS record, he’s still dabbling in that quirkier late-70s sound. But things are changing for sure – the most obvious being his writing abilities. There isn’t one awe-inspiring hook on here. There are a whole lot of pleasant ones. But the record feels fluffy and inessential. Nick’s style is so laid back and effortless – but when he doesn’t have the tunes supporting his breeziness, he ends up sounding like he’s just not trying. That’s OK though – I can still appreciate a half-assed Lowe product due to his owning such a winning voice and presence. “Showman” opens and closes with some excellent tracks, but there’s some very unappealing material cluttering up the middle of the record. Two songs in particularly strike me as oddly off-the-mark for Lowe. “Wish You Were Here” utilizes some garish synth sounds, those cheesy 80s pop ones you’d never expect to hear shit-buttered onto a record from a guy as tasteful and rootsy as Nick. The same production issue plagues the next track, “Chicken and Feathers,” which has a decent verse hook but then smacks us with some atrocious 80s pop female backing vocals during the lame chorus. These two songs come right at the top of the B-side, and they’re the only songs in the entire Lowe catalog to sport such hideous production adornments. So I assume they were the result of some ill-conceived and quickly forgotten commercial bid by Mr. Lowe. Luckily, the rest of the album sounds a whole lot better and more typical. “We Want Action” is a stomping Costello-like opener with some cool vocal phrasing ideas. “Cool Reaction” is another pop gem with a major Costello-vibe (I really do wonder how much we owe Nick for the classic Costello sound). Later on we get my personal favorite – the pretty soul ballad “Paid The Price.” That one has an 80s Jeff Lynne vibe – in a good way. “Saint Beneath The Paint” has a solid chorus hook, and closer “How To Talk To Angels” is a gentle melodic crooner torch song that points to way to similar material on Nick’s old-man 90s albums. There are some other OK tracks on here, and it all goes down pretty smoothly (save for those two synth missteps mentioned earlier). This is routinely slammed as Nick’s nadir, and I can see people’s point. But I think it’s a nice record and suffers mainly from its positioning as the first of a series of “much less good than Jesus Of Cool but still very pleasant” Nick Lowe releases.
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NICK LOWE & HIS COWBOY OUTFIT  (1984)

B

The next four Lowe records are essentially interchangeable for me. Nick falls into a very easy-going singer-songwriter style that mixes up his older pub rock sound with some light new wave vibes and a lot of country and gospel leanings. Basically, they’re just your standard roots rock songwriter albums, though Nick has a lot more wit and skill than your average roots rocker. There’s nothing differentiating these records from each other save for basic differences in the production, and if you put together all the best tracks from all four records, you’d end up with a really great piece of work. But even the covers and lesser tracks resonate because Nick just sells everything so well. He’s a charming performer, this Mr. Low. If you can get over the fact that he’s no longer pushing boundaries or challenging himself in any discernible way, then there’s some mild pleasure to be had with these records. Now, I must admit I have no idea why Nick is calling this his “cowboy outfit.” He’s hardly changed his style here, and though there may be one or two more country-derived numbers than usual, this is really just a standard Lowe roots-pop album. I’ve heard critics describe his mid-80s period as a “country period,” but that’s just simply not true. This record opens with one of Nick’s bigger 80s singles – “Half A Boy And Half A Man” – a bouncy and catchy tune with a cute organ hook. It’s weighted down a bit by the 80s drum production – it doesn’t have the “lift” of the earlier records and sounds more like your typical 80s radio song. It’s a few tasteful shades shy of Huey Lewis, if you catch my drift (sorry Huey Lewis fans). Next up (though I understand the UK and US releases of this had different running orders) comes a Mickey Jupp cover called “You’ll Never Get Me Up In One Of Those.” Well, Nick, you’ll never get me to listen to this song again because it’s fucking terrible. It sounds like low rate River-era Springsteen, very generic and saddled with ugly dated 80s production. It’s a powerful and uncharacteristic Lowe vocal performance (nice slap delay on the vox too!), but it’s just a shitty song and that’s that. “Maureen” is one of those quirky heavy percussion 50s rockers that Lowe does so well. It’s fun as hell, though it sounds a bit like a heavier new wave version of a lesser early Beach Boys track – fun as hell, but quite insubstantial. The best early track on here is probably “God’s Gift To Women” which has a really good chorus hook and some funny lyrics. But the album’s biggest winners come later – “Breakaway” is a super catchy pop song in the classic Lowe vein (though it’s actually Tom Springfield cover) and “Love Like A Glove” is the album’s ultimate track, a great pop tune with a Paul Simon vibe. The album ends with a great rebel country song cover called “Live Fast Love Hard Die Young,” followed by the Elvis Costello produced “L.A.F.S.” which sounds EXACTLY like Elvis Costello. I’m not sure if Nick and Elvis were doing it on purpose, or if that’s just literally the only way Elvis knows how to make music, but the song is full of those idiosyncratic Costello vocal phrasing tics. This album also has a funny surf rock instrumental called “Awesome.” It’s not an awesome album – but it’s a nice one, and has some minor gems on it, and it’s one of Nick’s better 80s albums.
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THE ROSE OF ENGLAND  (1985)

B-

This one is very easy to see as Part 2 of the previous album. The sound hasn’t changed on bit, nor has the band (for the most part). But where the previous record had a small amount of novelty on its side (like the Costello produced track), this one has too many covers and no new ideas whatsoever. It even opens with ANOTHER bouncy organ driven rootsy pop song, a clear-cut song sequel to “Half A Man.” The song is called “Darlin’ Angel Eyes,” and thankfully it’s just as good as its predecessor, with some excellent vocal doubling on the catchy chorus. Other highlights here include the Byrds-y “She Don’t Love Nobody,” which also sounds like a poppier Tom Petty. Nick really understands how to write a hook – he never loses that understanding throughout his career – and the tune has some excellent changes during its chorus. Elsewhere there’s the pretty folk rock of the title track, with its traditional Irish feel (that one also brings to mind The Byrds). Nick’s voice sounds great throughout this album, and his singing and vocal production often elevates the more generic tunes (like the boogie woogie pastiche “Seven Nights To Rock”). He’s something of a chameleon as a vocalist, able to mould his tone and phrasing to fit whatever rootsy genre he’s aping, Just like Al Kooper, another very consistent and tasteful producer/performer, Nick seems to understand the ESSENCE of all these genres, and he never comes off like he’s reaching even when he might not have the ideal voice for a given track. The biggest track here is the single “I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock And Roll),” but I can’t stand the song. It’s too simple and sounds like your standard generic 80s bar rock (not even pub rock – BAR rock). It sounds like poopy Bob Seger or something. Perfect for a Midwestern radio programmer in 1985, not perfect for a guy in 2011 trying to mine all the hidden pop hooks in post-peak Nick Lowe records! Nick covers Costello’s “Indoor Fireworks” on here – he adds nothing to the original by playing it exactly the same. It’s still a nice song, and Nick sings it well. There are a couple other forgettable Lowe compositions at the end of the record, and that’s basically a good way to describe the entire thing. Forgettable. Nice, pleasant, smooth, professional, and completely forgettable.
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PINKER AND PROUDER THAN PREVIOUS  (1988)

B-

What the hell happened to Nick?! That was my immediate reaction after listening to the first three songs on here. As the record continued playing, however, I realized he was merely trying out some new vocal and production styles on those earlier tracks. Because he sounds fine later on. But he sounds like GARBAGE on the first three songs. The finale of the opening trilogy is a stupid piece of shit called “Big Hair,” and it may be the all time worst Nick Lowe composition. Utterly generic and lifeless – to call it bar rock would be an insult to the owner of that bar. The first two are better, but the production has taken a hit. This is may be the worst sounding Lowe record of them all, but it WAS 1988 so I suppose the man deserves a break. A lot of these tracks sound more like demos than proper studio recordings. There’s a thinness to ’em that’s atypical of Lowe records, even the ones immediately surrounding this one.  But ‘The 2nd track Crying In My Sleep” is actually a pretty good country pop song, even if Nick sings it in this mock-Tom Petty nasal voice that freaked me out on first listen. Later exposure revealed to me his reasoning behind the vocal style – it actually fits the melody and atmosphere of the song quite nicely. The drum sound leaves a LOT to be desired on opener “You’re My Wildest Dream,” and the song ain’t too hot neither. But the album pops backs up to Lowe-ian life from track 4 on. Indeed, track 4 is a GREAT cover of John Hiatt’s “Love Gets Strange,” which is an incredibly catchy and well-written pop tune and makes me want to investigate some Hiatt records. Nick’s production harkens back to his earlier days, with some nice vocal harmonies and tight forceful sound. The song’s placement on the record comes as a serious respite after the distressing opening run of tunes, especially since Nick sounds like a naturally older version of his younger self in the vocal department (as opposed to a singer on a cigarette stained road to “Time Out Of Mind”-era Dylan gruff). Next up comes the cute 50s-styled pop tune “I Got The Love,” with some more sweet harmonies and a super friendly melody. More normal Lowe vocals too – phew! “Cry It Out” is similarly warm and inviting, a McCartney-esque light reggae pop that reminds me a bit of Jimmy Cliff. Nick sounds great on that one. There are a lot of covers on here, some better rendered than others. Graham Parker’s “Black Lincoln Continental” falls flat, but Lawton Williams’ “Geisha Girl” stands tall as a nice little country shuffle with a fun quirky ascending scale in the arrangement during the middle 8. The highlights here may be even higher than those of the surrounding records, but the low points are lower. Like I said, these albums are all pretty interchangeable.
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PARTY OF ONE  (1990)

B-

This is the last of the four “they all sound exactly the same” late-80s Nick Lowe records. The title might lead you to expect a sad and lonely sounding record, but Nick was saving those sounds up for the rest of his career. Nope – take the word “Party” seriously, because this is just another fluffy roots pop album from a songwriter who at this point sounds like he produces entire albums by booking twenty minutes of studio time, running a feather atop a mixing board, and heading home in time for supper. This one actually has a light “N’Awleens” feel to it, with some gumbo grooves and a Dr. John-feel to a few tracks. So there actually is a “party” element coursing through this record’s veins – it’s not just a fancy title after all. And there a couple minor late-period Lowe classics on here to boot, and NO covers! Nicky gets off to a middling start with the I-could-take-it-or-leave-it sleazy pub rocking opener “You Got The Look I Like.” It’s got a funny vocal performance, but it ain’t much of a song. And speaking of vocals, Nick’s pipes are definitely starting to show some serious signs of aging on this here record. Of course, the man changes up his singing style so often that for all I know he’s just chosen to use that tone. But even though he’s still switching styles per usual, you can detect a deeper resonance and gruffness sneaking around the edges of his tone. Anyway…”(I Want To Build A) Jumbo Ark” and “Gai-Gin Man” both push the Mardi Gras feeling to the forefront. They’re grooves more than songs, but they’re also extremely well performed and nicely sung and everything sounds a lot better than it did on the previous album. Dave Edmunds produced this one, and it’s got Jim Keltner on drums and Ry Cooder on guitars. You can’t really beat these men in the “playing musical instruments” department. I mentioned a couple “minor late-period Lowe classics” a few sentences ago, and now I’m going to follow up on my promise. The obvious example of that promise is “All Men Are Liars,” the best Lowe song in quite a well, with a biting lyric and a strong pop melody. I say “biting,” but Nick couldn’t really sound bitter if he tried. He’s got one of the warmest voices and breeziest energies I’ve ever heard from a major recoding artist, and that song is a good case in point. There’s also “Who Was That Man,” a cute comedy number with a fun singalong melody and a weird synth sound on the upbeats that lends it an “island music” energy. Also, “What Shakin’ On The Hill,” a light Dylan-esque ballad with a beautiful melody and some evocative imagery. These are all high quality singer-songwriter gems, undoubtedly better than what most of Nick’s peers were shitting out in 1990. The man has TASTE people. TASTE. And even if this is hardly a classic record, it’s an undeniably classy one. You can’t ask for a classier songwriter than Nick Lowe.
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THE IMPOSSIBLE BIRD  (1994)

B

What was Nick doing during the four years between “Party Of One” and this 1994 release? Well, if we are to trust his lyrics as autobiography, we can safely assume that at some point during the break he was experiencing the tragic tail-end of a soured relationship. This is practically Nick’s break-up album. And due to everything we know about the passage of time and the human body, we can also assume he was getting older. Yes, Nick has definitely aged some since his previous record, and this is the first of a NEW series of interchangeable Lowe records. You might call them Nick’s “Old Man Albums.” The Old Man Album is a genre that couldn’t have existed prior to the 1990s, for the classic 60s/70s album rockers hadn’t yet aged. But now that so many of them HAVE aged, and so many of them are still making albums, we are forced to examine a giant slew of records released by one-time innovators far past their primes. Some of them age gracefully and, after some natural growing pains, find a suitable format for their aged voices and attitudes (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Lou Reed). Some of them fall flat on their geriatric faces, and never really recover except commercially (Eric Clapton, Elton John). Some of them occupy a middle ground that results in a lot of boring material that’s occasionally performed with a touch of wit and class (Paul Simon, Paul McCartney). There’s also the heavyweight champion, Mark Knopfler – he’s been making old man records since he was in his 20s, and I don’t really know how to assess his work in this forum. Nick’s records fall somewhere into the middle ground, but they peak into the graceful top category from time to time. This one is the closest one of his old man records have come to achieving that exalted top position – it gets by on the depth of his emotions and the consistency of its song-writing. But it’s still often rather drab in the musical department. Nick makes proper use of his gruffer old man voice, never straining and usually emulating people like Dylan and Johnny Cash and older McCartney as opposed to his younger self and idols. In many ways, this is more complex emotional record of the man’s career, and perhaps the most interesting from a purely lyrical standpoint. This is what surely led some critics to label it his peak – I completely disagree, but I suppose I see what they mean in the words dept. The record kicks off with “Soulful Wind,” a tune that spends a minute or so as a fun but rote old man blues romper, but then surprisingly shifts into a killer hooky pop chorus. And THEN Nick arranged a quirky post-chorus instrumental section with a warbling ascending scale meant to represent the “wind” of the title. A decent song with a some sweet ideas. “The Beast in Me” is a simple acoustic folk song with a cool metaphorical lyric about Nick’s “dark” side. It was made more famous by some later cover versions, and it’s probably the best known Lowe song from more recent years. There are some dull bar band-y covers on here (“Trail of Tears”) and a really corny blues rocker called “12 Step Program (To Quit You Babe).” “Shelley My Love” sounds exactly like the sort of acoustic ballad old-man McCartney puts on his “golden years” albums. The heart of the record lies in its second half, where the heartbreak songs kick into gear.  “Lover Don’t Go” is an achingly sad lost love soul ballad with some great yearning vocals, some of which seem quite Dylan-esque. My favorite – “Withered On The Vine” – with an amazing vocal performance from Lowe that calls to mind Tom Waits. “Love Is A Battlefield” has a an awesome pop chorus too. The album ends with an old country cover – “I’ll Be There” – a bittersweet note to go out on. Nick seems torn up over his lost love, and that gives this album some guts. It’s got some of his best late-period material, and I’d say it’s the go-to record if you’re interested in Lowe’s mellow old man style.
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DIG MY MOOD  (1998)

B-

Picking up where “The Impossible Bird” left off, this is another laid back old-fart recording. But it takes more stylistic detours than the previous one, and seems less driven by one specific emotion (heartbreak). In a way, this is like Nick’s 90s version of “Jesus Of Cool,” careening as it does through a series of distinct old-rocker genres. It’s diverse, alright, though the energy level rarely peaks over the midtempo sleepiness. But during the course of its  38 minutes, we get a few lounge jazz crooners, a Johnny Cash pastiche, breezy pop, country soul, Dylan-esque grit folk, and a lot of light 60s R&B vibes a la Sam Cooke. In a way, this could be described as Nick’s “Sam Cooke record.” But I won’t describe it that way, that would be silly. You can do it if you want, you have my permission. The most obvious stylistic addition to the Lowe catalog comes in the form of those jazzy crooner songs. “You Inspire Me” sounds like the sort of thing Costello was attempting to do on his boring “North” album. I’m not crazy about old British new wave guys doing lounge jazz, but at least Nick performs the vocal with a bit more dignity than Elvis, who seemed bent on over-emoting every single note to the point of absurdity. “Lonesome Reverie” is one of the best things on here – a relaxed and unambitious soulful country song. Much of this material sounds effortless, and it’s often very pleasant, but it’s just not all that exciting. Take “Freezing,” for example – it’s a vibes-laden lounge thing that sounds like something Nilsson would have written while piss drunk at 3AM. It’s about as substance-less as a song can get without turning into a chair, but it’s also very fluffy and sweet. “Lead Me Not” is a decent gospel tune sung in an appropriately Curtis Mayfield-esque falsetto by Nick, proving he still has some chops left in the ol’ pipes. Nick even takes the time to fill us in on his heartbroken status, and things are looking up! “I Must Be Getting Over You,” sings Mr. Lowe to his ex-lover, and that’s a good thing for us fans – maybe soon he’ll get off his ass and rock again! There are some covers on here – I must say I’m particularly unhappy with Henry McCullough’s “Failed Christian,” which sounds to me like the sort of personal too-specific folk song better left to the coffee shops. Interestingly, Nick sings it in a mock-Dylan voice, and I wonder if he’s implying that Bob himself has neglected his famously adopted religion. Who knows. This record adds nothing to Nick’s legacy, but it’s nice enough and typically tasteful, tuneful, and relaxed.
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THE CONVINCER  (2001)

C

My pick for the worst Nick Lowe solo record. This thing is so lifeless it may actually be dead. I think Nick chose an appropriate album title – he’s afforded all the rock critics a chance to say: “I’m not convinced.” They think they’re being clever, see, but Nick actually fed them the line on a plate. What a nice guy. This album is boring. It sounds like the previous two, but something is seriously missing. There’s no focus, no energy, no sense of purpose. It’s just a collection of new Nick Lowe recordings. But the man isn’t operating anywhere near the level of his early days, and his sound has grown SO flaccid. The man’s hair has gone stark white, and his pop smarts went out with the color. Everything is so so laid back and uneventful, the album barely registers as an album. When listening to it, it’s almost like you’re listening PAST it. Every track sounds the same. It’s all singer-songwriter nothingness. Nick doesn’t sound like he’s trying, but where his work used to sound “effortless” it now sounds “lazy.” I know, I know – I’m an asshole. What about the record’s POSITIVE qualities? I did give it a C, not an F, right? So there must be two full grades worth of positive qualities. Um…”Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart” has a nice organ/guitar hook. “Indian Queens” is a very peaceful and very pretty folk song. “The Poor Side Of Town” is a soul pastiche with a strong melody that you could picture a real “soul” singer turning into a classic. Nick remains a sturdy songwriter, but his vocals are so relaxed here that everything sounds irrelevant. Oh, whoops, that was a negative thing at the end there. Um…back to positive things. Well, Nick is still a super classy guy! The production never slips into cruds-ville. It’s all warm and organic. I think the best way to describe this record is to take a quick gander at some of the lyrics from closing track “Let’s Stay In And Make Love.” It’s a song sung from the perspective of a man – most likely Nick himself- who on a given night implores his sweetheart to forget their planned social event. Instead he asks her (or him) to stay home and experience an evening of sweet old-fashioned love making. He sings: “I don’t really care, about tonight’s affair, we don’t have to go, the same crowd will be there, like they’ve been before, at the last three in a row.” That’s how the song starts. That’s his reasoning behind the “staying in and making love.” You know what I think? Dude is lazy. He doesn’t want to go to this party because he’s a lazy sack and for all we know, he’ll fall asleep before he even gets it up. And that’s a perfect way to think about this record: the limp old classy penis of a one-time party animal, too lazy to be called to action this time around. And as my Grandpa always used to say after settling into his favorite recliner chair: “ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ….”
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AT MY AGE  (2007)

B-

After his last album drained me of my youth via listening, I was NOT pleased to hear that Nick’s follow-up was called “At My Age.” What is that, the start of a bad stand-up comedy routine on cruise-ship? Anyway, while giving it a listen (which wasn’t hard since it clocks in at a brief 34 minutes), I grew happily surprised to find that it’s a big step up from the previous snooze-fest. It may, indeed, be the best Lowe record since “The Impossible Bird,” just barely pushing past “Dig My Mood” to take a respectable 2nd place in the old man Lowe album championship. There’s actually a bit of a pulse in this one – and Nick seems less concerned with the crooning and genre playing – he was content to just make a standard Lowe pop record this time. There’s a major horn presence on here too, which makes for a nice change of pace. The closest comparison stylistically would be to old Sir Paul (McCartney), whose last run of records tended towards the same well produced light folky pop singer-songwriter music. The record opens quite strongly – the short comic country confessional “A Better Man” is followed by the super breezy and melodic “Long Limbed Girl,” the album’s best track. “Hope For Us All” is a self deprecating smooth soul number with a Burt Bacharach vibe and some fun horn parts. There’s some Dylan-y stuff on here too – like the country pop of “A Man In Love,” and the sleepy ballad “Love’s Got A Lot To Answer For,” which reminds me of one of those atmospheric slow love jams on Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind.” Lowe’s voice is still old and gruff, but he sounds quite lovely on lots of these tunes The 60s bubblegum soul number “Not Too Long Ago” has some cute masculine “O O” back-up vocals! Nick couldn’t resist ending the record with a couple dull crooners, but he does manage a pretty good Grandpa baritone on closer “Feel Again.” There are some lyrics issues here – “People Change” and “Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day” seem a bit hackneyed in the language department, and that previously mentioned crooner is based around the corny wordplay “If you get the feeling, feel again.” But the whole record is so short and warm, even the weak moments don’t hurt it too badly. It’s just a nice little thing – like a little postcard from ol’ Nick. It’s not hurting anybody, it’s so polite and friendly. Nick is like your old uncle whipping out his acoustic guitar after Thanksgiving dinner and throwing some stuff “he’s been working on” at ya. So if you like Nick’s late-period style, you’ll like this just fine – just lower your expectations appropriately.
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THAT OLD MAGIC  (2011)

B-

Five years later, and Nick sounds exactly the same. This is “At My Age: Part 2.” Or “The Impossible Bird: Part 5.” Another postcard from your old friend Nick! These latter day Nick Lowe records certainly aren’t going to shake up the world, and I doubt they’ll be winning the artist too many new fans. But for longtime supporters, it’s nice to get another cute and brief little record from tasty Nick every now and then. This one has a “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here” vibe permeating the entire show. Every song seems like it was written to be the closer – sort of like a mid-70s Waits record. The album goes down easily, and disappears just as easily, and it adds absolutely nothing at all to Nick’s legacy. But it has some decent tunes! A nice ol’ atmosphere! A classy patient elegance! It’s the sort of album establishment critics love to get behind, if only because there’s absolutely NOTHING offensive about it, and yet it’s full of heart-on-sleeve metaphors and dusty old-timey arrangements. Plus, it deals with old-age in a comfortable way. Not only is Nick miles away from his new wave sound aesthetically, but he’s mostly concerned with aging and “closing time” on the lyrical front, and so everything sounds incredibly old. Of course, this doesn’t render the album in a different light from the previous 4, so what the hell am I even talking about? Moving onto the songs…after the pretty but dull opener “Stoplight Roses,” the best Lowe original shows up in the form of “Checkout Time,” a mellow but engaging 50s rock-a-billy rambler. “House For Sale” has a stately aged grace, like a fine wine making gentle glassy waves (though I find the central lyrical metaphor a bit strained). “I Read A Lot” is a similar heartbreaker with a forced lyrical conceit that reaches for mundane profundity but falls short, stuck in “pro songwriter” territory without erasing the footprints. But the pathos mostly connect. There are some big problem spots on here: “Restless Feeling” is mock-Bacharach 60s lounge pastiche, complete with vibes and telephone hold music energy. But there ain’t much going on beneath the style – it’s barely a song. Even more boring is the nearly 5 minute Costello cover, “Poisoned Rose,” which was already dull enough in its original version. It has some typically excellent lyrics, Lowe delivers it well, but the completely lifeless and generic melody and arrangement don’t overwhelm me with brilliance. If you want to give a pass to old-timers like Nick just for sounding tasteful, I will admit that the man is the epitome of aging gracefully. “Grace,” however, doesn’t necessarily mean “great,” and it certainly doesn’t ensure much entertainment value. The end of the album is the best part. “Somebody Cares For Me” is a cute samba-styled groover, and the reggae tinged cover of “You Don’t Know Me At All” is by far my favorite track on here. It contains the record’s only real memorable pop hook. This isn’t a hooky record, and it’s probably just a compilation of whatever Nick had been knocking around since 2007 – completely unambitious, and very forgettable, and utterly pleasant. Faint praise, to be sure, but I don’t mean to damn Mr. Lowe with it.

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