Monthly Archives: October 2017

Spencer Brown & Bruce Thomas • Back to the Start [CD, DD]

Bassist BRUCE THOMAS is best known as the 4-stringer in The Attractions, the band that backed Elvis Costello on his earliest (and best) recordings. His unique bass playing has also graced records by Suzanne Vega, Peter Case, Duncan Dhu and John Wesley Harding. SPENCER BROWN is a bit harder to background. Apparently, he is “a songwriter friend” of Thomas’s, and the two decided to collaborate on Back to the Start once Thomas heard the demos of the songs that eventually were completed for the album.

Made up primarily of pleasant, pseudo psychedelic pop tunes, the album – available via Amazon as a digital download or made to order CD – Back to the Start’s arrangements include backwards guitar, descending/ascending chord progressions, harpsichord and other hallmarks of mid/late ’60s pop. Brown’s tunes remind me of those of The Rutles (that fictitious British band that might have been big had The Beatles allowed them to take over). Yet they’re not exactly parodies or send-ups because they don’t seem to completely ape the core facets of their foundational genre. Clearly, Brown is accomplished enough as a multi-instrumentalist (I’m pretty sure he plays everything here except bass) to be able to add his own stylistic flourishes and lift the tunes out of that likely morass; there is no denying, however, that the Sixties is his decade of choice when it comes to music. Lyrically, the songs are of the usual subject matter, though there are numerous turns-of-phrase that keep things from going too moon/June/spoon.

But back to the start of this review: Bruce Thomas plays the bass here, and as you’d expect, his fundamental style is well-suited for the project. His florid bass lines add a McCartneyesque vibe to the tunes, which almost sounds like lazy journalism except that it’s true. On the other hand, there’s no mistaking that this bass player is the same guy who propelled Elvis Costello’s late ’70s/early ’80s output with gutsy, over-the-top or under-the-radar bottom, depending on what the tune called for. I always suspected Thomas had more of a respect for Macca’s playing than he ever let on, and hearing Bruce in this context shows it to be true. And that’s not even considering the cover of “There’s a Place,” which closes out the album. It makes sense that Brown and Thomas would throw a Beatles tune into the mix, though it comes from a previous era than the one the rest of the album is concerned with, and thus ends the affair on a questionable note. (Or were they going, uh, back to the start?)

I’d say Back to the Start is worth a shot if either of these are true of you: a) You enjoy psychedelically-inspired music, and/or b) You’re a big fan of Bruce Thomas. I can answer affirmatively to both, and I’m glad to hear my second most favorite bass player back in the groove. Who knows? Maybe Spencer Brown and Bruce Thomas will get together for another go-round, go more grandiose and give us something really, truly fab.

2.75/5 (no label; available to order via Amazon)

 

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Nick Lowe • Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, The Rose of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous, Party of One [CD, LP]

YepRoc has been working the NICK LOWE discography for some time now. Starting out with Labour of Lust, Pure Pop for Now People (Jesus of Cool) and the Rockpile-attributed Seconds of Pleasure, plus a best-of (Quiet Please) and a handful of new releases, the label finishes things off with the final six albums Lowe put out before he went independent in the mid ’90s.

Nick the Knife, The Abominable Showman and Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (Columbia US, 1982-1984).

Granted, the half dozen releases here are among Lowe’s least successful, but that concept is only relative when you consider what Nick has knocked out in his career. His first couple of releases after his band Brinsley Schwarz called it a day – Pure Pop and Labour – have stood the test of time as power pop classics. But Lowe was never interested in being the torchbearer for that genre. So on his further releases he slowly but surely expanded his reach by tackling a wider range of pop flavors, including rockabilly, straight country, country-politan and more.

1982’s Nick the Knife cut closest to the Pure Pop/Labour one-two punch, with “Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine,” “Burning” and the reggae-tinged remake of his tune “Heart,” flanked by most of Rockpile (who made the original “Heart”). A year later Lowe had put together the band that would support him on the next few records, releasing The Abominable Showman (excellent title!) and scoring artistically with “Raging Eyes” – in his typical time-tested vein – but moving along into greener pastures with “Time Wounds All Heels” and the sublime sounding/lengthily titled “(For Every Woman Who Ever Made a Fool of a Man There’s a Woman Made A) Man of a Fool.”

Without a hit or hint at the Top 40 since “Cruel to Be Kind,” Nick’s label was leaning on him to come up with something chart-worthy. He gave them 1984’s Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit, a cleverly-titled (though too clever for its own good) album with a surefire single, “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” which went nowhere fast. Despite a likely successful cover of The Springfields’ “Breakaway” and Mickey Jupp’s kick-ass “You’ll Never Get Me Up (In One of Those),” a worthy successor to “Switchboard Susan” (from Labour of Lust), Cowboy Outfit mostly stayed confined to the closet. Too bad, too, because Lowe penned some great album cuts (“Awesome,” “The Gee and the Rick and the Three-Card Trick”) that really showcased some of his untrumpeted strengths.

1985’s The Rose of England seemed to have the panacea to Lowe’s lack of chart time despite its boring cover art. (The US version featured a high school artist drawing/collage that was actually worse than the all-type treatment used in the UK.)  The remake of Nick’s own “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’N’ Roll)” was produced by then-chart topping Huey Lewis and played by him and The News. A catchy tune that was already great before Lewis helmed its second coming, it still didn’t have that certain-something to bother the charts. Neither did the excellent reading of John Hiatt’s “She Don’t Love Nobody,” the rockabilly killer “7 Nights to Rock” or even Nick’s “The Rose of England.” Still… nothing.

A few years later, after taking a breather presumably to have a rethink, 1998 saw the release of Pinker and Prouder Than Previous. A peculiarly-titled little troublemaker, it had some likely candidates for stardom, such as Lowe’s “Lovers Jamboree” and the fun take on Wynn Stewart’s “Big Big Love,” but nothing that actually made a stab at bringing Nick something other than a consolation prize.

The Rose of England, Pinker and Prouder Than Previous and Party of One (Columbia US 1986, 1988 and Reprise 1990).

His US label, Columbia, decided they’d had enough and Mr. Lowe moved on to Reprise for 1990’s Party of One, arguably his best album since Nick the Knife. But even with quintessential all-time Lowes like “(I’m Gonna Build A) Jumbo Ark” and “All Men Are Liars” (which contains the clever couplet “Do you remember Rick Astley?/He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly”), as well as the more mature but just as good “What’s Shakin’ 0n the Hill” and “I Don’t Know Why You Keep Me On,” this party was a bust.

What was it going to take to bring Nick the kudos that seemed to be his for the taking? Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard movie, whose 1992 soundtrack featured a cover of Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” though the song’s author’s name was probably completely unknown to those who saw the movie and bought the soundtrack album. Perhaps it was the success – and royalty checks – from this project that helped Lowe to figure out what he wanted to do next.

Not content to age disgracefully, Nick embraced a personal path without the pressure to write what the label thinks will be a hit (I mean, were they ever right in the past?). Lowe’s albums since 1990 have been much more relaxed affairs, with the kinds of songs (originals and covers) that better reflect his life and role as one of new wave’s elder statesmen. You still get the humor, just not the sophomoric kind. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, though, for those of us who came aboard because of his association with the punk/wave scene and thanks to songs like “Cruel to Be Kind” or “Crackin’ Up” have found the ensuing releases to lack the spunk of the early albums. And even though we may have the self awareness to realize that those who don’t mature are doomed to come off as perennial punchlines, we can’t help but listen to the early records and wish our hero’s future releases had continued in the same vein.

YepRoc should be commended for taking the torch and keeping it lit. Though the packages themselves are devoid of any frills (no lyrics, inserts or anything like that, at least in the CD configuration), they have added bonus track rarities such as demos and live versions from B-sides and elsewhere, when applicable. The CDs feature these items on the single disc; vinyl buyers get them on an included bonus 7″. Applause! And – if you bought all six albums during the pre-order period – you get a Nick Lowe lunchbox. Sure, there’s no thermos included, but you’re probably not taking this thing to school anyway. Unless you’re one of those who refused to grow up and still wish there was a “Switchboard Susan” on every Lowe LP.

3.5/5 (entire series) (YepRoc, 2017)

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The Replacements • For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 [CD, LP]

Many of us think back on the ’80s and feel it wasn’t a very good time for rock ’n’ roll. Well, we are clearly forgetting about THE REPLACEMENTS! Listen to For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 and you’ll recall that it wasn’t all bad – in fact, some of it was absolutely killer.

Captured professionally after their major label debut (1985’s Tim), this very live recording features the classic Replacements lineup (Paul Westerberg, Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars) on an “on” night in Hoboken, NJ. If you know anything about this band and their near mythological live shows, depending on the night, they either were the best band on earth or they sucked big time. Representing the former – oh, thank heaven –this 2CD or 2LP release is quite possibly the Live at Leeds of our generation.

The set list this February night leaned heavily on tunes from Tim and their indie classic Let It Be, such as “Hold My Life,” “Bastards of Young,” and Westerberg’s awesome “I Will Dare,” sounding much more muscular in its live rendition (no Peter Buck on banjo!). There’s also an assortment of earlier hardcore fare such as “Fuck School,” “God Damn Job,” and one of my toppermost ’Mats tunes, Hootenany’s “Take Me Down to the Hospital.” I don’t wanna… die before my time… already used… eight of my lives…

For Sale also contains a number of cover tunes done the way only The Replacements could do ’em: unpracticed, spur-of-the-moment, warts ’n’ all. Witness “Fox on the Run,” the Sweet hit, which goes for about a minute (just past the first chorus) before it ends in a shambles. Elsewhere, “Nowhere Man” and T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” actually make it to completion, naturally in the rough ’n’ ramshackle manner these guys typically delivered.

All this is to say, if you need your rock music all polished and rehearsed, you probably don’t wanna shell out for this 30-years-overdue live release. But, if you’re a true disciple of The Replacements – and if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you, man! – then you will find this album to be the quintessential, missing chapter of the book of the story of Minneapolis’s true rock ’n’ roll hall of famers. Hello Cleveland! indeed.

5/5 (Sire/Rhino R2 562078, 2017)

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