Keeping His Cool

Nick the Knife's regained his edge, and the world's a better place for it

Around this time Lowe joined forces with Dave Edmunds, an inspired guitarist and producer in his own right (Edmunds' particular idee fixe was the loose-limbed but emotive sound Sam Phillips coaxed out of the primitive equipment at Sun Records). The two played on and produced each other's albums, and Lowe borrowed Edmunds' band Rockpile for tours. On the legendary occasions when Edmunds joined Lowe on-stage, they managed to capture and refine the essence of pub rock without surrendering to its provincialism; in 1981, the two split acrimoniously and didn't repair the rift until 1990.

As punk trailed off into dissipation, recrimination and irrelevance, the wind seemed to go out of Lowe's sails. He issued a series of excellent albums in the '80s, but they seemed to lack the edge of his previous efforts -- either the cool no longer mattered to a public that was starting to appreciate the Talking Heads and X or it was just too hard to maintain. On 1982's Nick the Knife, Lowe took his casual approach even further, sometimes crossing the line to indolence, but Lowe on a lazy day is still good -- he has such an innate sense of pop form and structure he really can toss things off.

Abominable Showman from 1983 was an album of love songs to his wife Carlene. Lowe's trademark punning threatened to obscure the genuine emotion he felt; the songs are saved by his dryly earnest vocal delivery. He further explored his country tendencies in 1984 on the appropriately named Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit. Apparently written in the throes of marital discord, Cowboy Outfit's songs are more tuneful than lyrically sharp. But any thought that Lowe might have been losing his gift were put to rest by the standout "Half a Boy and Half a Man," which, as one might figure, is kind of about growing up. The mid- and late '80s also saw The Rose of England and Pinker and Prouder than Previous. They're both good albums, but with Lowe's sarcasm buried, they just aren't essential.

Because the strengths of Lowe's early career were talent and detachment rather than rebellion and sex, it was just a matter of time before he regained his stride. On Party Of One (1990), his songwriting takes off again. Produced by Edmunds, Lowe sloughed off his '80s ennui and hit some melodic highs. "All Men Are Liars," in which he takes it upon himself to issue a mea culpa on behalf of all of us, is as good as anything he's done; even ditties such as "Gaijin Man" (about feeling out of place in Japan) and "Shting Shtang" (you can probably figure this one out) rock with spirit.

Little Village, Lowe's next project, seemed a great idea: take the three wryest songwriters known to man (Nick Lowe, John Hiatt and Ry Cooder) and an esteemed session drummer (Jim Keltner), lock them in a studio and see what comes out. Little Village is a fine album, but the blending of songwriting talents -- "all compositions by Cooder/Hiatt/Keltner/ Lowe/" -- doesn't quite work. Each one of the writers traffics in idiosyncratic perspective, and when the individual voices are edited, amended and reined into a group, what's left are well-crafted songs that sound like they were written by committee, which they were. One doesn't listen to Nick Lowe for his Ry Cooder-like moments, nor does one listen to John Hiatt for his Lowe influences.

So now comes The Impossible Bird, Lowe's first solo project in four years. Lowe again tosses off genre pieces like they were nothing, and his songwriting is more mature than biting. Whereas his earlier songs illuminated the author by the light reflected off his targets, Bird is introspective, almost moody.

To be sure, Lowe's sense for the felicitous turn of phrase will still make you smile, especially "14 Days," about giving a lover two weeks notice that he will have been gone 14 days by then, and "12-Step Program (To Quit You Babe)," which seems self-explanatory.

One can dream of what it would have sounded like if Elvis (Presley, not Costello) had wrapped his pipes around the ballad "The Beast in Me," which Lowe wrote for Johnny Cash. On "Withered on the Vine" Lowe does such a good imitation that Willie Nelson doesn't need to cover it; all the Men With Hats ruling the Nashville charts put together couldn't muster the intelligence to give the classic "Trail of Tears" the reading Lowe does.

The Bird band -- Robert Trehern on drums; Bill Kirchen, once of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, on guitar; Paul "Bassman" Riley on, of course, bass; and Geraint Watkins on organ and guitar -- is accompanying Lowe on his extensive tour. They'll be stopping here at Rockefeller's.

Nick Lowe plays at Rockefeller's on Thursday, February 23. Jim Lauderdale opens. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12. Call 869-8427 for info.

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