Friday, March 11, 2011

Nick Lowe • Labour of Lust

That this 1979 power pop classic has been out of print for so long is pretty amazing, considering Nick Lowe's Labour of Lust continues to thrill so many years later. Finally, YepRoc comes to the rescue with their second Lowe archival release (Jesus of Cool/Pure Pop for Now People was the first). And though it doesn't feel as substantial as the previous one, it is among the most important of Lowe's records.

The thing about Nick Lowe, circa '79, is he was a busy little beaver, what with playing in Rockpile with Dave Edmunds, producing Dave's and Elvis Costello's records (at that time he had done both This Year's Model and the classic Armed Forces), and touring like an American with the runs. (Yeah, I don't know what that means either...). At the time of recording this, Lowe's second proper solo album, the band (Nick, Dave, Billy Bremner, Terry Williams) were also recording the songs for Edmunds' Repeat When Necessary (another brilliant record!). Both albums ended up with a superb selection of songs, though naturally Edmunds' was more rockabilly and '50s rock, while Lowe's Labour was chock full of oddball pop gems, hit records that were never to be, and songs eventually covered by the likes of Johnny Cash ("Without Love").

"Cruel to Be Kind" was not only a big single for Lowe (his only US Top 40 tune, asamatteroffact), but an amazing anchor for the album, despite not being considered for the album at all until his American A&R guy begged him to recut the song, which had originally appeared as a Brinsley Schwarz title. The Brinsleys version was very middleoftheoroad country pop—pretty bland, actually. Lowe & Cowe added some thick harmonies, more of a backbeat, and vóilá, a hit was born. The album itself also featured further pub rock classics like "Switchboard Susan," "Born Fighter," "Cracking Up," and the US-only "American Squirm," possibly Lowe's most overlooked gem. (In the UK they substituted "Endless Grey Ribbon," also on this reissue.) Labour of Lust was the best power pop record of the time, save maybe Squeeze's East Side Story (only one degree of separation from this) and The Clash's London Calling, though I'm sure you'll argue whether those two can be called power pop. Call 'em what you will, these three albums in late '79/'80 are what made me what I am today... an almost-divorced, 48-year old power pop junkie sitting in a Starbucks in Tacoma writing a music blog entry while waiting for "his woman" to get home from work.

Sadly, there are only thirteen songs on this release, the dozen that appeared on both the US and UK versions (actually eleven on each), and the B-side, "Basing Street," so you'll blow through this pretty quickly. But there's no doubt that this album deserves not only to be in print, but in every CD collection (or LP, 'cause it's gonna be out on vinyl too) in America. Oh, and the UK.

Now, let's get Nick out on tour... You can play the whole album for us, Nick, acoustic, electric, or however you like. Just treat us to your magnum opus before the moment's gone for another ten years.

5/5 (YepRoc)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Jayhawks • Hollywood Town Hall, Tomorrow the Green Grass

It's the great Northern Minnesota raid! I don't know if they're from Northern 'Sota, actually, but I know The Jayhawks are back and that's a good thing. They put out a tremendous best of last year, Music from the North Country, and now American has reissued their first two releases on the label, Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass. I'll be upfront in saying that I didn't catch on to these guys the first time around—I guess the "alt country" tag that kept getting pinned on them was a turn-off for Mr. Power Pop here. Then they did Sound of Lies (1997), which was right up my alley, and then I lost track of 'em. This here rock critic now looks through the lenses of hindsight and reissuedom and has decided that the Jayhawks were much, much more than alt country; what they are is a ROCK BAND that uses pretty much all the American genres available to them and come up with a sound all of their own.

Hollywood Town Hall, first released in 1992, is definitely a showcase for Gary Louris and Mark Olson's voices, and it does come off more on the alt country than the power pop side, but you can't deny the greatness of "Waiting for the Sun," which one of my Facebook friends says was in the van's CD player the whole tour of '94. If you're afraid of close harmonies, the kind Phil & Don and Charlie & Ira put down, then you'll probably want to stay away from this one. If, however, you count that kind of singing as one of the great treasures of modern music (and you overlook the fact that Louis and Olson aren't actually brothers), then here, my friend, is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Next up was the album that many consider the band's finest 40 moments, Tomorrow the Green Grass. How I missed this the first time is beyond me. I mean, me, the rock critic who thought he was up on everything. Thought he had a handle on things, thought he had his finger on the pulse of America's youth. Feh. I missed this bigtime. I can now say with only slight embarrassment that avoding this album is like saying to anyone in particular, "I don't really care about rock music." Well, I do care about rock music—as you know—and I'm telling you now that this CD is beyond brilliant. Whether it's "Blue," the beautiful "I'd Run Away," or their cover of Grand Funk's "Bad Time," Tomorrow... is today's pick. Big fans of the band will adore this release, with five bonus tracks on disc one and then "The Mystery Demos" (eighteen of 'em!) that make up disc two. I haven't even got to those yet, I've been so mesmerized by the album itself. But I'm sure they'll reveal their likely greatness to me in due time. Those demos were recorded in '92 with just Louis and Olson (save a couple with violin included) on guitars.

Now I will count myself as a fan of the band and wish they had come out to Seattle on the short tour they did. But the news is that the "classic lineup" has recorded a new album that'll be out later in 2011, so grab these now (and don't bypass Sound of Lies either) and get yourself geared up.

3/5 Hollywood Town Hall, 4/5 Tomorrow the Green Grass (American)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

David Lowery • The Palace Guards

What I like best about David Lowery, who has incidentally fronted two of my favorite bands—Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker—is that he can effortlessly move from rockin' to weepin', poppin' to peepin', and runnin' to creepin', all within the confines of a normal length album. His first solo disc, The Palace Guards, doesn't rock as much as most of you will remember Cracker doing with "Low" and the like, yet there's so much to dig on this that you probably would have forgotten that if I hadn't've reminded you.

Lowery doesn't disappoint his longtime fans here. The tunes tend more toward the CVB side, I suppose, but that's not counting Cracker's countryish Countrysides album, or their collaboration with Leftover Salmon. His trademark sense of humor is represented well, for instance on the title track, as is that sweet, sorta boy next door side, the one that utters such great lyrics as these from "Submarine": "All we got is love and time and kindnesses / To carry us in troubled times and crisises." Rock 'n' roll isn't entirely absent, as you'll hear on "Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me," which is only missing the gritty guitar of Johnny Hickman to make it a real life cracker. (JH does make a brief appearance on the CD though.) I'm also nuts about "Ah, You Left Me," which isn't so rockin' and wasn't even written by David, though you'd never know it if I hadn't've reminded you.

Basically, anyone who's into CVB or Cracker will entirely enjoy this CD, unless you've got something against fun albums that warrant repeated listenings. And since David Lowery rarely lets us down in this regard, I think you'll find my little review to be superfluous once you meet The Palace Guards for yourself.

3.5/5 (429 Records)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Soft Boys • A Can of Bees

1-2 "great to be here," "sure is" 3-4...

YepRoc's new reissues of two great Soft Boys albums starts off with this intro to "Give It to the Soft Boys" on A Can of Bees (and continues with the Underwater Moonlight LP). Robyn Hitchcock's late '70s anglo rock band, hailed as being both punk and psych (a near collision of rock critic clichés), were a much overlooked group, only receiving their due when Robyn's solo career took off in the mid '80s with his brilliant I Often Dream of Trains and Fegmania! releases. Sure, some real enthusiastic power pop trainspotters were aware of "I Wanna Be an Anglepoise Lamp," the Soft Boys' single release on Radar UK, but for the most part, by then the band were not just cold but buried. Through some early reissues on smaller labels and then bigger ones like Rykodisc, the band's three albums (there was also the compilation Invisible Hits) gained acclaim as angular rock that wasn't punk, wasn't neo-psychedelic, wasn't power pop, but lodged somewhere in the overlap like a bed bug in a worn out sheet.

This time YepRoc has issued vinyl and CD versions of Bees and Moonlight that are faithful to the originals (barring the bonus tracks on the CDs, which are available as downloads for the vinyl buyer), but not wholly necessary unless you want the vinyl. A Can of Bees, the Soft Boys' first LP, is a punchy, locomotive of a rock elpee, chugging along with finely oddball tunes like "Leppo and the Jooves," about a band that jumps on anything that moves, including "taxis, coffin lids, Americans, pianos, heads and rooves," the elegaic "Human Music," which is a tune that reveals Hitchcock's more reserved side, and a live version of John Lennon's "Cold Turkey." You don't actually get "Anglepoise Lamp" on the LP, which is a shame, but then it wasn't on the LP in the first place. (It can be had on a few different compilations, including Rykodisc's 2CD 1976-1981 compilation.) As I said, vinyl addicts may want to pick these up if they're lacking wax for their Soft Boys tracks, especially Bees, which hasn't been out on vinyl since the early '90s. And Underwater Moonlight, the 5/5 classic that it is, is also a great buy if you don't have the early 2000s Matador release, which was 3 LPs + a 7" in the best packaging ever of a Robyn release. Both albums are must-haves in at least one configuration (your choice), so make sure you have 'em. And by the way, YepRoc recently announced the upcoming reissue of Nick Lowe's Labour of Lust, which ought to be a real corker considering it hasn't been reissued since it came out in '79!
4/5 (YepRoc)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pretenders • Pretenders II

The holidays and a little bit of travel kept me busy for the last month, and though there are some new releases I'd like to get to, I listened to this gem on the plane and I can't help but want to give Pretenders II it's due.

Now I know most of you, if you're a Pretenders fan, like the first album better. And what's not to like about that album? Every song's a winner; it's hard to beat "Mystery Achievement," "The Wait" or their cover of "Stop Your Sobbing," let alone the truly sublime "Brass In Pocket." But Pretenders II is just as brilliant, just as rockin', and in my book, a better collection of songs. From the opening beats of "The Adultress," all the way through "Louie Louie" (not the Kingsmen's hit), II is a rock 'n' roll coup.

Can you beat "Message of Love" for a song that is so sensually poetic, and yet still kicks you in the nuts? Chrissie Hynde's lyrics are so good, even when she lifts others' lines like "Now look at the people, in the streets, in the bars / We are all of us in the gutter, (but) some of us are looking at the stars," she's an original. "Talk of the Town"? Brill. "I Go to Sleep?" Hynde & Co. pick another sleeper of a Ray Davies tune and make it their own. "Bad Boys Get Spanked?" Oh my, how I wished I was getting a spankin' from Chrissie back then. Yes ma'm, no ma'm... whatever you say Ms. Hynde!

And what about "Birds of Paradise": "I wrote a letter to you my friend, so many letters that I never send / I think about you at day's end, the time that we had / I laughed in my bed, the stupid things you said / We were two birds of paradise." What a gorgeous song. The band at that time, Chrissie, James Honeyman Scott, Pete Farndon and Martin Chambers, were probably the best unit going at the time. Their intertwining guitar and bass lines on this song, with Chambers' tasteful percussion, are a showcase for how they could tone it down and still pack a whallop. So, with II, we now had a pair of absolutely stunning albums and then, boom, two of the four are gone. It's sad to say that Pretenders II was the last page in that unmatched opening chapter, but it was, it is, and life goes on.

Chrissie, of course, continued on with Learning to Crawl, also a nice piece of work, but the band from that point on became a bit of a revolving door with its members. Whatever... She still does great work. But if you haven't given II a spin in awhile, please do. It really is amazing.
5/5 (Sire/Real)