Perhaps The Fall's Mark E. Smith continually blasted Pavement because he knew, deep down, they were better than his band. It just seems thick to knock Pavement's “Conduit For Sale!” and “Our Singer” for ripping off “New Face In Hell” and “Hip Priest,” respectively, when these rip-offs are warmer, funnier, and catchier than the originals. The Fall were -- and are -- a great band, but in 30 years they’ve never come close to matching what Pavement did in 10 -- hell, what Pavement did in one.
The Watery, Domestic EP was Pavement’s post-Slanted And Enchanted release, their last work featuring original drummer Gary Young, and their first with bassist Mark Ibold and percussionist/keyboardist Bob Nastanovich. This incarnation of the band wouldn’t last past ’93 -- when the hippie-dippie Young was replaced by fresh-faced Virginian boho Steve West -- so these tunes aren’t exactly standing on solid ground. Stephen Malkmus had begun to pen better, bolder stuff (The Fall comparisons wouldn’t wash from here on out), which the new blood might have fleshed-out better with the help of a more dynamic drummer. But if Watery showcases a stiff, uncertain Pavement, the songs themselves are bright enough to overcome.
“Texas Never Whispers” begins with a wash of molten guitar spittle, but the noise is quickly shelved in the name of songcraft, a move the album's alternate title, Diluted, Tame, cheekily acknowledges. The opener lumbers into strange pockets of melody and wordplay before collapsing in a flurry of rubbery riffs, while the winsome “Frontwards” hints at Malkmus’ lyrical potential beyond opaque, Dadaist bunk (“I am the only one searching for you/ And if I get caught then the search is through”). “Lions (Linden)” is willfully slight, but “Shoot The Singer” is a corker, with its jangling arpeggios nicked from page one of Play Guitar Real Good With Peter Buck.
Despite the fade-out coda of “Don’t expect, don’t expect…”, Pavement followed up Watery with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: their masterwork and the absolute zenith of ’90s American indie. The seeds are here: “Lions” begat “Cut Your Hair,” “Shoot The Singer” begat “Gold Soundz,” and so on. The band truly did their growing up in public, and even in their transitional phases, they were still pretty close to untouchable.
My favorite scene in Bullit, the 1968 cop flick staring Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullit, comes near the end of the movie: Shady Senator Walter Chalmers tells Bullit -- who’s been through hell and back, dodging death, knee deep in intrigue, and jumping up and down the hilly streets of San Fran in that ’68 Ford Mustang G.T.390 Fastback -- “We all must make compromises.” “Bullshit!” Bullit growls.
I like to imagine Alex Chilton saying the same thing when asked by some clueless record execs to tame down his 1980 debut, Like Flies on Sherbet. Maybe the label just didn't, you know, get it -- their unfeeling commercial aspirations unable to grasp the artistic boldness and significance of Chilton’s masterwork. This is his What’s Going On, his Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Bravely, Chilton decided to press a meager 500 copies of the album himself; 500 copies of no-compromise attitude, DIY grit, and triumphant artistic expression.
Yet listening closely to Like Flies on Sherbet reveals that, sadly, my imagined Chilton, creative and courageous, might be exaggerated. Likes Flies is one of the most damaged records I’ve ever heard; not damaged in the way Pig Destroyer sounds “damaged,” but I mean totally wrecked. It’s as if no one involved in the performance, production, mastering, or duplication of the album was sober at any time during the process. The playing is sloppy: in-the-red guitars blast-mask any subtlety underneath, the vocals careen out of tune, studio clatter remains audible, and vocal flubs are left brazenly on display. It’s so ruined it can’t be accidental. Gleefully out of control, the record sounds like someone exiting the New York punk scene, someone enamored with The Cramps (who Chilton had produced), inspired by that snot nosed attitude, aiming to deconstruct rockabilly, blues, and country music, and to rebuild them in his own image.
All of which wouldn’t be so surprising if it wasn’t for Chilton’s pedigree: At 16, the Memphis kid was fronting The Box Tops, gallivanting about the country on the strength of the group’s massive hit, “The Letter,” which found the young Chilton sounding impossibly gruff. Eventually, he left The Box Tops, frustrated by a lack of songwriting input, and headed home where he joined the fledgling Big Star. Over the course of three albums, Big Star would define American power pop; they laid the foundation for everyone from The Replacements to R.E.M. and garnered a cult following that still obsesses over every sound on those three records. But commercial success eluded the band, and by the time Third/Sisterlovers was released, the strain was audible. The final album to bear the Big Star name was haunting and disparate, created largely by Chilton alone. A fractured psyche is revealed, capable of chiming power pop as well as tortured balladry (listen to “Oh Dana” followed by “Holocaust”).
Despite an ongoing debate over Third/Sisterlovers' status as a one-man effort, Like Flies remains Chilton’s first definitive solo album. Holed up in Sam Phillips & Ardent Studios with Big Star producer James Luther Dickinson, Chilton leads a group of session musicians through a rambling set of covers and half-formed originals. “I’ve Had It” showcases the album's most out-of-key performance, with multi-tracked vocals stumbling across the room. KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” (the first track or not included at all, depending on which rare pressing you hunt down) features another glorious mistake: Chilton comes in with the vocals too early and in the wrong key. “Girl After Girl” goes for prime Elvis and ends up sounding like dead-toilet Elvis, while the Carter Family standard, “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena,” features some high, lonesome vocals that don’t entirely fail until Chilton begins uncontrollably laughing amidst the tale of slavery and loss.
It’s not that these tracks are without merit, though. The playing, still messy and loud, is positively gleeful and, on Chilton’s originals, surprisingly appropriate. “My Rival” stomps with Sonic Youth joy, driven guitars chugging along with complete abandon, and “Hey! Little Child” re-imagines Big Star’s lovelorn “Thirteen” as a Catholic school girl call out; with its repeated chorus of “Hey! Hey! Hey!” the song fits alongside “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y night!” and “Hey ho! Let’s go!” in the pantheon of deliriously stupid and wonderful rock ‘n’ roll mantras. The album's title track, “Like Flies on Sherbet,” is an ace card: a pounding piano-driven rocker embellished by avant-garde synth and guitar squeals that sounds something like a Here Come the Warm Jets B-side covered by Badfinger.
To say that Like Flies on Sherbert is a masterpiece of lo-fi punk would be a misnomer. Chilton wasn’t a punk rocker, even if he wanted to be. But to decry the album as an utter failure would be just as faulty. Chilton’s work has grown increasingly stale over the years, the oddball madness of early albums replaced by cool ambivalence and easy listening forays into jazz and blues. Modern Chilton doesn’t seem to care about anything, but the Chilton of Like Flies seems to care about not caring. What he found so exciting about punk was its engagement of the audience. Like Flies is G.G. Allin tossing excrement on his crowds; it’s Iggy Pop rolling around in broken glass and peanut butter; it’s Elvis Costello cutting the band off mid-song on SNL and launching into “Radio Radio” instead. Like Flies is the sound of a musician railing against the indifference he felt his career had endured.
Chilton may not be the “rock-hard” Bullit, refusing to compromise, but his album at least recalls that film’s famous car chase. There’s one scene where the camera is hit by one of the cars, causing the shot to shake violently before cutting out. The scene was left in the movie. Perhaps the director wanted to make it known that the chase was real, that there was tangible danger and risk involved. Like Flies on Sherbert is an entire album of that shot. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s absolutely real.
Recorded two months before the titular wunderkind (born Milo Aukerman of Lomita, CA) made the trek from Hermosa Beach to UC San Diego, Descendents’ first album sounded the demise of the band's original incarnation; it rivals X’s Wild Gift and Fear’s The Record as L.A.’s superlative punk document. By this point, the band was tighter than ever, and the songs were well-played indeed -- so much so that the gay-bashing and virginal-wrath-as-sour-grapes-neo-Puritanism would come off as merely figurative if not for Aukerman’s pubertal tenor.
His voice brings to mind a stalling El Camino and cakes each mote of pampered suburban ennui in requisite grime and gravel. The lyrics aren’t “funny” anymore than they’re “lyrics,” but an occasional insight along the lines of “You got a baited hook and you’re calling it your cherry/ You want to settle down and you want to get married” damn near elevates them beyond brain droppings.
Thirty seconds into the splatter and fuzz of “Myage,” you want the song to play over the opening titles of every movie you’ll ever see for the rest of your life. It’s a killer. And if the rest of the album doesn’t always match the opener on a hook-for-hook level, the more traditional pile-drivers benefit from Aukerman’s sharp wordplay and charmingly stunted worldview. Things he likes: fishing, The Beatles, true love. Things he hates: whores, posers, PARENTS!!! (three syllables). Things he is not: a loser, a punk, dead.
There’s some softening on the last four songs, both melody-wise (“Bikeage” actually jangles) and thematically, as M.A. pines for a girl looking for love in all the wrong places. On “Hope,” he tells her, “I think it’s right to want someone for all your own/ And not to share her love.” By “Jean Is Dead,” she’s killed herself. See where feelings get you?
During the time of year when all the leaves are gone and the nights are long, without flaw, I begin an annual shift into pensive hibernation. Three transformations take place in me that I neglect the rest of the year. First, I rediscover my oven and the delights of baked deserts; I crank out enough cookies, sweet breads, and pies to make your grandma green with envy. This comfort food fattens me up for coming winter months and lays the groundwork for the next metamorphous that takes place. Step two, I become a raging midnight hour film fanatic of the black and white persuasion. Night after night, I sit in the dark, wrapped in a fuzzy down comforter, nestled up with my chubby cat Delilah in a drooling semi-diabetic coma from all the of baked yumminess, and I watch movies from Tinsel Town's golden era, with an occasional Criterion Collection selection sprinkled in to appease my highbrow aspirations.
The final phase of my march towards monastery-like introspection takes full effect: I dig into that forgotten attic of my record collection, the hidden corner that contains that most cerebral of musical art forms, the music that makes documentarian Ken Burns wet his starched slacks with glee -- the music known as jazz. Sure, some of you have your Mannheim Steamroller Christmas collections to sip eggnog to while wearing your holiday-themed sweaters. Not me. I prefer to transport myself to an imaginary Parisian nightclub thick with cigarette smoke, where Billie, Miles, Duke, and the like reign supreme. I suppose I could choose to watch an inspirational and heartwarming made-for-TV holiday movie starring Meredith Baxter Birney on one of those family-friendly cable networks like my mom does, but would Meredith Baxter Birney provide the appropriate acoustical ambiance I require for making a Bundt cake? I think not.
Oh, but don't think my appreciation for jazz lies only with musicians who grace U.S. postage stamps. This is where I seem to differ from the aforementioned filmmaker with starched slacks. You see, I also get my freak on to avant-garde jazz from the ’60s, where giant afros stare at me from the album covers. I weird-out to those art-damaged beatniks hanging out in the downtown New York lofts during the ’80s. I scan the pages of Wire magazine for the latest improvisations hitting the streets from some unheralded, underground maestro. This is my wintertime, get-out-of-bed-and-face-the-world music. This provides the jolt I need to shake the sugar hangover from the previous night's confectionery smörgåsbord. This is the fiery yang to my moonlight yin preference of bebop, ballads, and swing. That's where Ask the Ages by Sonny Sharrock comes in. But really, as fascinating a topic as I am, enough about me.
You might be familiar with Sonny's guitar sound already. He recorded the theme song for Space Ghost Coast to Coast, is featured on several Ron Burgundy-approved Herbie Mann records, and played with Miles Davis' early ’70s fusion band. But that only scratches the surface of what Señor Sharrock does when plugged in. Sonny shreds on the guitar. Not the sort of hair guitar shredding that is promised in the tabs of the glossy guitar mags with Joe Satrioni and Stu Hamm on the cover. If I were to make assumptions, I would guess that Sonny could shred after finding the glowing orb from the cartoon cult classic movie Heavy Metal lying in his backyard, which gave him the guitar power of Greyskull. It's kinda like if the love child from the respective worlds of Rod Serling and Lewis Carroll was given a guitar, these would be the sounds that it produced. Is it making sense for you yet? Sonny Sharrock is the guitar boss you've never had. I don't care how good you are at Guitar Hero, even if you have Thad Jarvis backing you up; there is no way you are producing the whacked-out sounds that come from Sunny's six string. Too bad for any of you wannabe Yngwie Malmsteen blowhards reading this; I'm not technical enough to be able to tell you what's going on from a theoretical point of view. (I do, however, have a great recipe for ginger snaps.)
Joining Sunny on Ask the Ages are two undisputed grand poobahs of free jazz, Pharaoh Sanders on saxophone and Elvin Jones on drums. Elvin is best known for propelling John Coltrane through his peak creative years, and Pharaoh has my second favorite name in jazz after former Jazz Messengers bassist Spanky DeBrest. Pharaoh howls and shrieks in all the right ways to compliment Sonny on his exploration of the stratosphere; there are moments when the intensity is at such a fevered pitch that you absolutely think one of them is on the verge of blowing an o-ring.
But this isn't a total skronkathon that can turn off many listeners to free jazz; there is a lot of variety going on here. On "Who Does She Hope To Be?" for example, the band simmers it down for a scorching electric blues. You know that obnoxious commercial where a bunch of baby boomers are sitting around singing Viva Viagra? I bet they crank out some electric blues while driving in their midlife-crisis convertibles -- but Sonny isn't playing the generic electric blues that would appeal to that crowd. This is the sort of soul searching electric blues that reminds me of Eddie Hazel's "Maggot Brain" from the Funkadelic clan. If I had to find a flaw in that song, it'd be its brevity, and that it isn't opened up enough to let Sonny totally rip into the ether as it's on the verge of doing. Meanwhile, on "Many Mansions," I hear Love Supreme-era Coltrane being channeled. Which reminds me of the time I went to the Church of John Coltrane in San Francisco and had some red beans and rice. Which just triggered my salivary glands and is making me aware of that delicious aroma coming out of my oven. Which is making this review come to an abrupt end. Godspeed, mix tape fans, godspeed.
In the wake of Buffalo Springfield’s undoing, a plethora of new projects were birthed. As Steven Stills parted ways to team up with David Crosby and Graham Nash, Neil Young went solo and occasionally collaborated with them. Jim Messina discovered his folk singing protégé, Kenny Loggins, and the two went on to make heavenly sounds for the next half decade as Loggins and Messina. Dewey Redman, the group’s drummer, decided to recruit new members and milk the Buffalo Springfield thing for all it was worth, performing under the New Buffalo Springfield, and often just New Buffalo. Stills and Young weren’t so jazzed on the idea and sued Redman for use of the name, which caused a prompt re-branding: New Buffalo became Blue Mountain Eagle, named after their home state of Oregon’s oldest newspaper, who, coincidentally, did not sue. After the change, Redman left the band to form Medicine Ball, excising BME from any direct legacy of Buffalo S.
The remaining band’s ephemeral existence would see them sharing the stage with the likes of Hendrix, Lee, and Burdon. In December ’69, they entered the studio to record with Bill Halverston, who manned the decks for other acts like the Dead and CSNY (years later he would engineer Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express). The final product revealed a slickly recorded, shimmering side to acid rock. "Love is Here" starts things off with a deep cookin’ groove, reminiscent of SRC or Dino Valente’s Quicksilver Messenger Service. A Young-ian lyrical structure heeds a letter of warning to a young psychonaut: “If you want to change the world you live in yeah/ There must be a feeling from all sides yeah.” BJ Jones and Joey Newman weave their wails, while lead vocalist David Price “chh”’s and “aah” throughout.
And there are plenty of other tracks worth describing:"Yellow’s Dream" is soft and folksy, with an organ intro reminiscent of Aoxomoxoa era-Dead, while the heavy blues rocker, "Feel Like a Bandit," has a dual vocal attack, filled with “my woman ain’t no good” lyrical fare, so typical of that era. Troubles’ proto-"Sweet Home Alabama" opening lick erupts into a color chorus of sunburned psychedelia that makes you think you’re back in the Haight. "Loveless Lives" evokes the stoner soul of Vanilla Fudge and the deep, deep grooves of Randy Holden’s solo work. "Sweet Mama" is similarly iconoclastic, and finally the Stills-penned single "Marianne" is lovingly added to this CD in both mono and stereo form, jovially creaks with electric wah.
On the downside, ballads like "No Regrets" and the airy "Promise of Love" detract from the album's more freewheelin’, “All American band” stride. Blue Mountain Eagle also sounds derivative at times, recalling a number of other, more popular groups; they ultimately suffer from a far too formulaic approach, with each song following the verse-chorus-verse-guitar freakout-coda-verse-chorus-coda-end template. The lyrics are sometimes abysmally simplistic ("You make me feel bad now mama/ And that isn’t good"), and despite the heaviness and proficient playing, this super group comes off as somewhat of a session band. Ultimately, big egos and poor record sales would be their demise, and in May 1970 they disbanded, only five months after recording the album. Now the tracks have been rescued from obscurity and re-released, and despite a few qualms, aficionados of West Coast hard psych should definitely check out this lost rocker.
1991: Jim O’Rourke - Tamper
Jim O’Rourke gets the reissue treatment from Drag City, the Chicago label better known for hyphenated folk stalwarts like Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Joanna Newsom, two artists for whom O’Rourke has done engineering or production work in the past. On Tamper, we get a much less accessible O’Rourke, reminiscent of the innovative instrumentalist who has frequented the likes of Derek Bailey, Eddie Prevost, and Keith Rowe since his college days. The three classically-minded pieces on this record dilate and deepen through quarter-hour crossfades, attaining violent crescendos and murmuring in near silence with generous stretches of overlapping, single-note loops in between. For those who appreciate drone and minimal composition, it’s quite intriguing stuff.
“Spirits Never Forgive” swells patiently toward a climactic, birthlike highpoint, starting with nearly inaudible pulses before queasy, cosmic oscillators jangle through each other and Tony Conrad-style violins squeal away like agitated bats. There may be a clarinet at the bottom of all this, but the sounds are stretched so much that instrumentation seems irrelevant; texture and mood are more central concerns. “He Felt the Patient Memory of a Reluctant Sea” is downright mournful, tracing wobbly orbits through de-tuned, echo-heavy wavelengths. “Ascend Through Unspoken Shadow” begins with a feedback shitstorm; sharp blocks of sound cleave into and through each other, resulting in a texture far more abrasive than in the two more contemplative tracks that open the record. On all three pieces, O’Rourke deftly welds a vehicle for experimental, classical, and noise music, without allowing his layered tones to veer too far into any one of those domains.
All in all, Tamper is a worthy reissue of the high caliber one would expect from someone of O’Rourke’s stature. Although the original release dates back to 1991, it sounds perfectly relevant in the context of contemporary experimental work. This should give us pause: If, some 17 years after its original release, this ‘experimental’ record still sounds fresh, we can and should praise the foresight of its creator, but we should also question the ingenuity of his would-be successors. Tamper should serve as a challenge to today’s electro-acoustic mavens to renew both the sound and structure of their work.
The late-’60s and early-’70s musical landscape is marred with one-shot albums. Thousands of bands took a stab, failed to hit the jugular, and disappeared quietly into the night, but only the good lord knows why such a fate was handed down to Holy Moses. The band's lone, eponymous release has all the ingredients of a bonafide classic. Recorded at Jimi Hendrix's newly built Electric Lady studio and produced by Kim King (Lothar & The Hand People) and Mike Esposito (The Blues Magoos), it sounds just as fresh and full today as it must have back then. Billy Batson -- which may not be his real name, since it's the mild-mannered moniker of Captain Marvel – wrote all the songs with a clear sense of humor and an undeniable swagger. His roughhouse storytelling was propelled to another dimension by the six-string prowess of one Ted Spelios: a man who is said to have impressed a young Bruce Springsteen during his brief stint in another one-album band called Kangaroo.
"No Turnin' Back" is a sure mixtape highlight. Spelios' shredding is righteous, totally supporting the saloon piano and a tale of love -- half way out the door -- as moaned by Batson. With a hint of southern revival cutting through the sombre barroom rowdiness, Billy's husky voice fleetingly wanes under the struggle, sounding like a clear influence on Kings Of Leon and other like-minded bands that would crop up decades later. "Roll River Roll" hits roughly the same area, but with a church organ instead of piano. The plinking tone that occasionally surfaces, care of Ted, sounds like Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" or something Tom Morello might use. Typically, though, the album rambles through rockin' psychedelic R&B numbers, the band's bread and butter. They were as good as anyone at the up-tempo numbers, yet the two dismal tunes are the most thoroughly engaging, the ones where they let their guard down and truly emote.
I cannot fathom why Holy Moses!! wasn't a gold record in its time, or why it's taken so long to appear on CD. Didn't the world need a drunker Canned Heat (check "Agadaga Dooley" and you'll know)? I guess not, because the LP fizzled on release and the band followed suit shortly thereafter. Sadly, Ted Spelios never got a third chance to fulfill his awesome promise and crumbled with mental problems, eventually becoming, -- according to legend -- a wine-making monk. He could have easily been the next Robin Trower; the East Village already considered him the best guitarist alive next to Hendrix. Hopefully this Fallout repressing will at least give due where it's earned. There are no bonus tracks, but a brief detail of Holy Moses' account has been added to the liner notes. Realistically, their album still won't get the press it deserves, but I consider it to be one of the essential reissues of 2008.
When discussing Mogwai, it’s too easy to talk about tension and release, about loudness and its absence, about tantalizing gestures toward the industrial-strength machinery whirring behind a velvety sonic curtain. And it’s all too easy to talk about Mogwai Young Team at the exclusion of all else. Ten years on, many critics and fans would still prefer to act as though the story of this album is the period-point-blank story of Mogwai, despite the four full-length follow-ups of diminishing returns. To some (including this reviewer), news of a remastered, reissued Young Team with outtakes was more exciting than the prospect of a new album. But as tempting as the rhetoric of reissue packaging and bonus material is, take this album for the album, not the trimmings.
Only the first of the nominal tenth-anniversary bonus disc’s tracks is previously unreleased, and it’s not hard to see why. The cover of Spacemen 3’s “Honey” is Mogwai doing sugar and love as well as they can -- it's better than their own similarly themed compositions, but sweetness was never really the band’s strength. Most of the extra tracks are live takes of album material, which are interesting, but rendered irrelevant by bad mixes that fail to capture the dynamic lifts and sheer drops of the band’s concert repertoire. The alternate version of “R U Still In 2 It?” might be excepted, though only because the vocals (by Arab Strap’s Aiden Moffat) assume prominence, which ironically reinforces the track as a better portrait of a relationship arcing towards failure than anything Arab Strap ever wrote. The best of Mogwai’s ancillary work from this time is already collected on the singles disc Ten Rapid, which stands up better than the band’s last two albums and would be more worthy of your hard-earned cash if this reissue was only about odds ‘n’ sods.
But disc 2 is just gravy for the roast beast centerpiece of Young Team itself, which comes to us now from the Chemikal Underground deli case in a finer, heavier-cut slab than previously released. The debut was, and is, a straight knockout: 5 for 5, not quite like anything the increasingly sleepy band has done since. The twin trademark bone crushers “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Like Herod” get a booster shot to keep them socking the air out of unsuspecting guts from the dorm room to the boardroom, though the bystanders asking if the listener’s gasping-out-loud, headphones-askew ass is alright are probably more likely office colleagues than freshman roommates these days. Beyond those two oft-cited pillars of pulchritude, the remastering job also brings out subtler, rounder tones in other highlights like “Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home” and “Tracy,” tracks that were squished flat on the original.
In a way, a little bit of the lower-fi mystery of the album’s original Exile on Main Street murk has departed with the high-def clarity of this version. What the remastering shows best, though, is that Young Team hasn’t gotten softer with age; Mogwai were always good at the light stuff and used to be better at keeping you interested in it.
Every now and then, a “criminally overlooked” record gets picked up and re-released by a hip label to glowing reviews. The collective blogosphere, the music press, and rock lit nerds, anxious to latch onto a little piece of hidden history, are quick to extol said album’s virtues and heap praise at its feet. It’s easy to get desensitized to the whole process. I mean, can this “unknown classic” really be that great? If it’s so amazing, why haven’t I heard it?
Well, put your record industry mechanics aside, and let’s cut straight to it: Nick Lowe’s 1978 solo debut, Jesus of Cool is undoubtedly a rock ‘n’ pop masterpiece, and every single shining review you’ve read about it is right-freaking-on.
Perhaps you’ve noticed Nick Lowe’s name on a few of your albums. A legendary knob twiddler, he’s always been known as the man behind the boards on Elvis Costello’s best records, as well as an in-house producer for Stiff Records, where his fast-paced recording style earned him the nickname “The Basher.” But Lowe was a prominent performer in London’s pub rock scene in addition to his production credits, playing bass and writing songs with Brinsley Schwartz, who’s ruckus live shows paved the way for the burgeoning punk scene.
Cobbled together from various fly-by-night sessions and recorded on borrowed or stolen studio time, Jesus of Cool featured Nick flanked by a who’s who of the London scene, featuring contributions from members of the Rumour, Larry Wallis (Motorhead, the Pink Faries), and longtime associate Dave Edmunds. The album was released in 1978 on Radar Records, former Stiff main-man Jake Rivera’s new label, and was surrounded with ubiquitous sloganeering brought over from Stiff’s ad department: “We’ve finally nailed the Jesus of Cool” read posters all over London. “The Jesus of Cool recordeth for your sins. The Jesus of Cool is a testament to the Church of Aural Sects.”
Not surprisingly, “conservative” American audiences were given the same album under a different name (Pure Pop for Now People) and saw a slightly different tracklist. Fortunately, “Pure Pop” says as much about the album as the original title. With reckless abandon, Lowe tackles a variety of pop styles, and the results are exhilarating. We get tales of vicious show promoters sung through a Thin Lizzy-inspired lens and Jackson Five-style dancefloor pop that grinds its gears midway, launching into something like Paul McCartney’s English reggae excursions.
“Tonight” recalls The Everly Brothers; “Rollers Show” chews the bubble gum of its subject matter, The Bay City Rollers; and “Heart of the City,” recorded live, finds Lowe and company blasting their way through a straight-ahead rock tune with snarling punk rock intensity. It’s not hard to see why audiences were more than a little confused with Jesus of Cool. It was too punk for the rockers, too rock for the punkers, too traditional for the new wavers, and too new wave for the pub-rockers.
Opener “Music for Money” chugs along with heavy menace, its lyrics reflecting Lowe’s disdain for the music biz. “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” inspired by a trashed hotel room during a tour with Bad Company, is a perfect piece of new wave pop, it’s bassline pogo-ing about while tinkling piano and syncopated drums dance around endlessly. Lowe’s lyric “I love the sound of breaking glass/ Especially when I’m lonely” somehow manages to sound utterly goofy and poignant at the same time. The gleefully gruesome “Marie Provost” is similarly conflicted: a sly ditty about the silent film actresses’ mutilation by her dogs, the track certainly sounds like it would appeal to a shock-hungry audience, yet Lowe sings over it with a wistfulness that paints a more complex picture -- at once sad, funny, and lonesome. It flew smoothly over the heads of the average listener.
Jesus of Cool is indeed Nick Lowe as pop prankster, but even more, it’s Nick Lowe as pop fan -- a record collectors record: sonically all over the map, witty, charming, and fun without ever being easy. His later records maintained a master craftsman's quality, but would move in more subdued directions, embracing polite pop, rockabilly, and country sounds. “In those days I wasn’t interested in creating serious art," Lowe states in Yep Roc’s deluxe-edition liner notes. "I was much more interested in the mischief. I wanted to make music that was accessible, but just as you’ve hooked people in, you would screw it up and throw it across the room. I do regret it somewhat, but time was of the essence and it had to be disposable.”
Lowe doesn’t give himself enough credit. If Jesus of Cool is in fact disposable, then it can only be disposable in the best possible way.
There’s something very appealing – and to be immediately mistrusted – about the standard critical narrative of Los Lobos, a band that attained heights of popularity by perseverance and hard work, held onto their relevance through pure musicianship and, at 30 years going, continue to refine with every release. Certainly they’ve overcome a series of challenges, from a near-pigeonholing as “the Mexican-American band” to being continually confused with Los Lonely Boys (a slip that, speaking candidly, makes me want to stab myself). A critical reader who was unfamiliar with the band's work could be forgiven for harboring skepticism over new praise -- especially given the well-documented ability of narrative to overpower content, throw it out of the ring, and step on its throat -- and particularly in cases where aging artists are credited with a “return to form” or with “their strongest work yet,” or anything along those lines.
It is with this expectation of skepticism in mind that I make the following statement: The Town and The City is the strongest, most focused work from Los Lobos yet. Moreover, in a year when national hysteria over immigration had begun boiling toward its present fever pitch, they made an album about the immigrant experience that crackles with feeling and relevance.
The Town and The City is located by a triptych of place-portraits. “The Valley” is an idyll from the perspective of a migrant farm worker, “The City” a breathless account of the splendor of urban America, and “The Town” a depiction of a poor neighborhood at dusk. These songs establish the feeling of movement and the allure and promise of what's beyond the horizon, as well as conjuring a faint hint of optimism to balance the darkness of many of the stories. Were it not for these establishing shots, the cynicism of “Don’t Ask Why” and the plain desperation of “Hold On” might come to dominate the record – and those themes aren't the point. This isn’t an album about hopelessness, only about hopes onto which, perhaps, too much is pinned. For example, the protagonist of the loping country-blues “Road to Gila Bend” is evidently leaving behind a whole life, but what comes across in the refrain (“Can they see me coming? Do they know I’m running?”) isn’t total resignation, but battered fight.
All of this sentiment would be wasted if it weren’t for solid songs. Fortunately, Los Lobos grasped the current fashion for artiness in rock and turned in not only a set of catchy songs, but some of their prettiest, noisiest, and most experimental. I confess that in the past, I’ve been bored by some of their more traditional output – I’m simply not of a generation that can easily appreciate classicist strains in rock. I am cynical about blues pentatonics and doubly so about such shibboleths as tasteful noodling and impeccable guitar tone. The Town and The City won me over with sparkling cascades of delay (“The Valley”), blustering fuzz (“The Road to Gila Bend”), shiny, dream-pop organ (the retro-soul gem “Little Things”), and a rainbow-colored sheen on everything (particularly on “Chuco’s Cumbia,” a snappy Latin number that stands as one of their most fun songs to date).
That the music is cast after the themes and subject matter of the lyrics further removes The Town and The City from typical classicist exercises. “Chuco’s Cumbia” is loaded with old Pachuco slang; “Hold On” is spare and dusty to match its strung-out subject; “The Town” is shaded with subdued, minor-key menace. Perez, Hidalgo, and Rosas evidently conceive of their songs as entire aesthetic experiences, which is a distinctly contemporary attitude when contrasted with other aged rockers, for whom subject matter is often treated like an afterthought – used either as an entry in an authenticity contest (hewing to the notion that the artist is always the subject), as a tedious formalist chore, or to make some cranky point with the full awareness that nobody is listening. Given the number of miles they’ve clocked, what's surprising about Los Lobos is the extent to which their songs continue to be treated as ends in themselves, rather than as exhibits in the case for the artist’s relevance.
The Law of Rock Band Averages says that the next thing Los Lobos release will probably be an unpardonable dud. Of course, the whole appeal of the hard-work-and-perseverance narrative is in the way it implies that duds are the product of laziness or of style beating out substance, and not of the inevitability that talent eventually runs out. However, even if that winds up being the case – that is, if this is Los Lobos’s final seminal statement – then they nevertheless deserve recognition as one of the longest running bands to defy the odds and remain in the stream of vital discourse.