Nick Lowe – The Road To The Brentford Trilogy and Beyond
Is the Jesus Of Cool due for a reappraisal? Craig Chaligne resurrects the later albums of the great Nick Lowe
The middle of the eighties was a difficult period for Nick Lowe. After honing his skills with Kippington Lodge and Brinsley Schwarz from 1967 to 1975, he had managed to become a central figure of the punk and new wave movement by the end of the seventies. He scored a couple of solo hits (Cruel to Be Kind, I Love the Sound Of Breaking Glass), formed Rockpile with Dave Edmunds and recorded and produced several punk and new wave acts (most notably Elvis Costello and The Damned). However by the mid-eighties, everything had gone wrong. Lowe was putting out albums with too many filler tracks (to keep up with the contract he had with his record company) and apart from a couple of songs that charted during this period (Half A Boy And Half A Man, I Knew the Bride), his audience was diminishing and he was wondering if he still had a future as a recording artist. At loose ends, Lowe received a call from American singer John Hiatt at the beginning of 1987 to know if he would like to play bass on his forthcoming album Bring the Family. Joining Hiatt with Ry Cooder (lead guitar) and Jim Keltner (drums), the whole album recorded in a very spontaneous way over a week showed Lowe that there was still life in producing records in the “old fashioned way” without spending a whole week pondering on the snare drum sound! That group of musicians went on to form the short lived Little Village group over 1991-1992. Reinvogorated by the sessions, Lowe recorded two albums that signaled a return to form (Pinker And Prouder Than Previous” and “Party Of One”) and were pointing towards the direction he would start to take in the middle of the 90s.
In 1993 Lowe had everything in place for giving the direction he wanted to his career, he had written songs that he felt comfortable singing, found musicians that were sympathetic to his new style. The only thing that he was needing was money to record an album and tour without the pressure of a big record label. Money supplies arrived thanks to the million dollar payment that Lowe received for the royalties of the cover version of “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding that appeared on the multi-million selling soundtrack to the movie Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. This enabled Lowe to finance the sessions for his next two LPs (The Impossible Bird and Dig My Mood) and the accompanying tours that followed them. The songs written for The Impossible Bird were written and rehearsed in the function room of a pub in Twickenham not far from Brentford where Lowe has been living for years. Released in 1994, the record is roughly divided between ballads and up-tempo blues-rock numbers. Highlights are abundant, from the opener Soulful Wind (which features a nice little chord progression in between verses and choruses that gives you the impression of hearing the wind) to the rollicking I’ll be There. In between these two songs you get a series of well executed ballads of which the highlights are the perfectly paced Drive Thru Man, the lament of midlife crisis Where’s My Everything and the bare bones tale of madness The Beast in Me (well known for its cover version by Lowe’s ex-father in law Johnny Cash) . As usual we get a couple of covers that include great version of True Love Travels On Gravel Road” (originally sung by Elvis Presley) and Trail of Tears written by songsmith Roger Cook. Musicianship is excellent and the band contains two musicians (Robert Treherne on drums and Geraint Watkins on Keyboards) that still tour and record with Lowe to this day. Guitar player Bill Kirchen only played and toured with Lowe for that album but his idiosyncratic guitar playing distinguishes The Impossible Bird from its follow ups.
Dig My Mood, the follow up was recorded over a one year period (from June 1996 to June 1997) and was released in January 1998. This album sees Lowe finally making the transition to rock crooner he had started on his previous outing. The mood Mr Lowe wants us too dig here is definitely a mellow one, tales of sadness abound with one single ray of light tossed in for good measure (the fantastic ballad You Inspire Me, later covered by Engelbert Humperdink). You’ve got another number that was begging to be a covered by Johnny Cash with the misanthropic Man That I’ve Become. Fantastic songs about heartbreak and lost love (What Lack Of Love Has Done, Lonesome Reverie, High On a Hilltop, I Must be Getting Over You). Covers are expertly executed as usual, with a spine tingling vocal performance on Failed Christian that was penned by former Wings guitar player Henry McCullough. Too cut a long story short, apart from Freezing that’s a bit slight, every song on the album is great. Dig My Mood sets the template for all the following albums.
I don’t know if it’s the lack of major touring after the release of Dig My Mood but it took Lowe only 3 years to write, record and release The Convincer. The cover shot for the album is absolutely great (a kind of “still the Jesus of Cool” vibe emanates from it). As said in the previous part Lowe has now firmly established a pattern in which he makes his records. He hones the songs in his rehearsal space in Brentford till he knows them inside out (same process for the songs he decides to cover), then he proceeds to record them with his regular band and producer/sound man Neil Brockbank. Lowe often explains in interviews that he’s not a very prolific songwriter and that he doesn’t accumulate songs for albums and record them all in one go. He has to write a batch of 3 or 4 that he really considers good, records them and in return this gives him the drive to write the rest of the songs to complete the record (The Convincer was recorded over a period of one year in different studios in London). As on Dig My Mood most of the songs deal with pain and heartbreak but there’s the odd glimpse of light (the fantastic ode to new found love She’s Got Soul). As usual the arrangements are top notch with just the right amount of little additional flourishes that enhance the songs but never distract the listener. Particularly impressive in that domain is Cupid Must be Angry (strategically placed after She’s Got Soul) with its clever use of strings and horns, Homewrecker features some nice organ work courtesy of the ever-soulful Geraint Watkins. A few tracks on the LP have become staples of Lowe’s live shows, Lately I’ve Let Things Slide which boasts one of his finest set of lyrics, the folk number Indian Queens (there’s an excellent video of him explaining the meaning of it on you tube) and Has She Got A Friend, a distant cousin of 1983’s Without Love that features some great guitar parts from Steve Donnelly.
If The Convincer had come relatively quick after Dig My Mood, it took Lowe twice as much time to release it’s follow up At My Age. Due to a series of events in Lowe’s life, it was recorded in dribs and drabs. Far from suffering from it, the record feels incredibly cohesive. The mood is a little lighter than on the two previous efforts. Even the songs that treat about lost love do it in a cheerful way (The Club, the cover A Man In Love). The tunes are more about reminiscing than regretting. After doing an anti-macho song with All Men Are Liars on Pinker And Prouder Than Previous, he does a tongue in cheek pro-macho one with I Trained Her To Love Me (co-written with long time drummer Robert Treherne). The album is just so consistent, there’s no particular stand out tracks, all the Lowe originals are perfectly crafted vignettes with just the right amount of words, chords and arrangements. If I was strapped to a chair and tortured, I might go for Long Limbed Girl but picking a favourite out of such a batch of good songs is tough. This record is a special one for me because it’s the one that made me discover Nick Lowe. I liked it so much that as soon as I saw he was touring Europe I booked a ticket to go and see him play in Madrid at a venue called The Riviera (located surprisingly not far from a river). I spent a huge amount of time trying to find the venue (Spain doesn’t do signposting for rock venues, more on that later). I finally managed to find it (I’d been going past it half a dozen times over the last hour) to see just a few folks queuing for the ticket when the gig was due to start in less than half an hour. I was beginning to wonder if anybody was going to turn up when suddenly one thousand folks materialized behind me in the space of fifteen minutes. The gig was everything I hoped it to be and more. Nick opened with a few acoustic numbers on his own and was joined by his band for the rest the show. The audience was a bit boisterous which ruined some of the quieter songs (You Inspire Me) but were enthusiastic enough to entice Nick to play a few extra acoustic numbers at the end (Seven Nights To Rock and Heart Of The City). If you want to check out what Nick is like live, I would recommended his Live At St Lukes show that was recorded for BBC4 (it’s on Youtube) or the extra DVD on the Quiet Please Best Of that includes a recording of a full band show at The Ancienne Belgique in Brussels.
After coming back from Madrid I was thinking that now would start the long wait for the next Nick Lowe album and accompanying tour. Boy was I wrong. First there was the announcement of a joint European tour with Ry Cooder following two successful shows for a charity in San Francisco during the fall of 2008. I managed to catch the tour at the Carre Theater in Amsterdam. Tickets for this tour were horrendously expensive, I remember paying something like 90 euros for a seat that was right at the top of the theater. The gig mainly featured material from Ry Cooder’s back catalogue with a couple of songs from Little Village, a few Nick Lowe tunes and some covers. The gig was nice but if you were a Nick Lowe fan you ended up feeling a little short changed. The two highlights of the gig for me were a cover of the Eddy Giles song Losing Boy and a nice version of Lowe’s 1984 hit Half A Boy And Half A Man with a tasty slide solo by Ry Cooder. The backing band for the gig should have included long term Cooder collaborator Flaco Jimenez on accordion but he fell ill before the tour leaving just Lowe, Cooder and his son Joachim on drums and two female back up singers for some songs. I think that the gig would have been fantastic if they just added Ry to Nick’s backing band with the same song selection.They are such skillful players that I’m sure they would have adapted themselves to Ry’s style without any problem.
Simultaneously to his outings with Ry Cooder, Lowe toured the UK to celebrate the re-release of his two first solo albums (Jesus Of Cool and Labour Of Lust) and of a new best of called Quiet Please covering the whole of his career from his days in Brinsley Schwarz all the way to his At My Age album playing a date at The Royal Albert Hall (sparsely attended unfortunately). Apart from his usual bouts of American touring, year 2010 was spent recording his next album The Old Magic that was finally released in September 2011. I must admit that I was surprised by the mellowness of the album the first time I listened to it but it definitely grows on you with the numbers of listenings. The album is short and to the point coming at just under 36 minutes with the usual ratio of covers and originals. As I said earlier on the album is quieter than its predecessors, only the lead single Checkout Time could qualify as a rock song. The rest of the album is made up of ballads (Stoplight Roses, House For Sale) and mid tempo of what I would call for lack of a better phrase “lounge rockers” (Sensitive Man, Restless Feeling). The covers blend in seamlessly with the originals (showing Mr Lowe’s usual flair for choosing songs that suit his style), the high point being a really good version of Tom T Hall’s Shame On The Rain that removes the country twang from the original while adding Nick Lowe’s touch. The best track on the record for me is the last one Till The Real Thing Comes Along which somehow never gets mentioned anywhere in reviews and that was never played live during the tour that followed the release of The Old Magic. A fantastic song that ticks every box, perfect pace, spot on lyrics and arrangement. In one word : masterpiece.
At the Time The Old Magic came out, I was living in the south of France and despite a date being scheduled in Paris, it made more sense crossing the border to Spain to see Mr Lowe and hi band in the beautiful city of Bilbao. In a remake of the Madrid incident a few years before, my girlfriend and I spent a couple of hours going round an industrial estate trying to figure which metal corrugated warehouse contained the venue. Thanks to a few Heineken neon lights that were switched on when the night was falling down we finally located the damn place. The venue called Santana 27 was a rock club from 8pm to 11pm and then a disco after the gig finished till the early hours, the room was far from being full but there was enough punters to make it look nicely attended. The opener was Geraint Watkins (Lowe’s piano player for the last 20 years) playing a solo set. Despite a big faux pas during the gig (message to people playing in Spain : never shout “Viva Espana” when you’re playing the Basque region), he got a good reception playing songs from his three solo albums plus a few covers. Lowe came on stage just by himself opening with Stoplight Roses and Heart with the band joining him during What Lack Of Love Has Done. The set list had some nice additions compared to the Madrid gig with some older tunes that hadn’t been aired for a while (Raining Raining, Ragin’ Eyes) mixing in with newer tunes from The Old Magic and classics (Cruel To Be Kind, What’s So Funny About Peace Love And Understanding, I Knew The Bride). If my memory serves me right Lowe put the whole audience in his pocket by saying a couple of words in Basque in between songs. The last number of the gig was a cover version of Alison by his old friend Elvis Costello.
Lowe spent the whole of 2012 touring The Old Magic and I would have to wait till July 2013 to see another live gig by Mr Lowe. He was announced on the line up of a songwriter day that was part of a series of concert organized in Hyde Park. Other acts scheduled the same day were in order : Elvis Costello, Ray Davies and Elton John. One week before the gig Elton John’s appearance was cancelled which resulted in Nick Lowe being upgraded to the main stage (he was scheduled to headline one of the smaller stages) and as it was too late to find a headliner, the organizers declared that the admission would be free !!! Nick’s set was short and concentrated on the “hits” but it was nice to see him play in this acoustic format with just him and his Gibson. I was hoping that we might get a Lowe-Costello duet during the later’s show but nothing happened. Shortly after the Hyde Park gig it was announced that Lowe would be putting out a Christmas Album called Quality Street : A Seasonal Selection For All the Family. Apparently the idea of making a Christmas album was suggested by Lowe’s American record label YepRoc. A bit reluctant to the idea for a start Lowe changed his mind in the end and recorded the album at the end of 2012 with his usual musicians. The result, a mix of Lowe originals, co-writes and rearranged seasonal standards though far from being as good as his recent albums is a pleasant addition to his catalogue. I had the chance of meeting the great man himself and having my copy signed at the Rough Trade shop in Brick Lane on the week before Christmas 2013.
The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood and The Convincer have been reissued a few years back by Yep Roc Records in a box set titled : The Brentford Trilogy.
All words by Craig Chaligne. More of Craig’s work for Louder Than War can be found in his author’s archive.