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Keeping His Cool

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

The Jesus of Cool is back. Not that he was really gone -- it's not like he died or anything like that -- but Nick Lowe is fresh from a trip through Little Village and on tour for the first time in five years to promote a new solo album, The Impossible Bird.

For those of you unfamiliar with Lowe's oeuvre, think of him as 1) a damn fine songwriter; 2) a seminal producer; and 3) the godfather of post-punk.

Lowe got his start in Brinsley Schwarz, the most talented of the bands to emerge from England's pub rock scene in the early '70s. Pub rock was punk's wiser older brother -- the pubbers and the punks were reacting against the same overblown self-seriousness and intellectual vacuity that characterized so much of rock in the early and mid-'70s (Frampton Comes Alive, Boston, Brain Salad Surgery, etc.). But where the punks threw what turned out to be just a large tantrum, the pub rockers stripped down the instrumentation to a slightly countrified minimum, played small venues (hence the "pub") and developed a clever, biting lyrical style.

But just as punk never really caught fire stateside, the pub rockers didn't really survive the journey across the Atlantic. Though they had some English hits with "Ebury Down" and "Country Girl," both written and sung by Lowe, Brinsley Schwarz (the name of the band and its lead guitarist) had about as much a chance of being stopped on the street as Delmore Schwartz. As the band broke up in 1976, Lowe and Brinsley manager Jake Riviera formed Stiff Records (motto: "If it's a Stiff, it's a hit"), whose first release was Lowe's debut as a solo act, "Heart of the City" b/w "So It Goes." Instead of following up his critical and (for the first time) commercial success with an LP, Lowe went full-time into production work.

He secured his position in rock history by producing Elvis Costello's 1977 debut, My Aim Is True. Costello, back then a skinny kid with dorky glasses and a scary intensity, leavened (or sharpened) the anger and energy that were punk's hallmarks with some of the sharpest songwriting around. Lowe shared Costello's love of intricate wordplay and pub rock musical sensibility, but instead of Costello's sputtering anger -- early on Costello named "revenge and guilt" as his biggest inspirations -- Lowe, perhaps in reaction, cultivated an air of bemused detachment. The casual, almost nonchalant (some would even say sloppy) air of Lowe's productions diluted some of Costello's bile, sometimes making Costello fight his way out of the mix just to be heard, but Costello needed the humanizing influence. It's almost frightening to contemplate the result if Costello had hooked up with a producer intent on distilling his essence or focusing his energy or whatever -- unmitigated viciousness can be pretty hard to bear.

Costello recognized his debt to Lowe in part by always closing his shows with an old Brinsley Schwarz tune, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." While producing Costello's first five albums, touring with Stiff colleagues Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric, as wells as producing discs by The Damned, Dave Edmunds and Costello sidemen the Clovers, Lowe found time to record his own solo album, released in 1978 as Pure Pop for Now People stateside and as Jesus of Cool in Britain. One could indulge in lame rock-crit labeling and call it the first postmodern rock album, but it is more a delightful survey of late '70s rock genres. Lowe effortlessly switches gears, accelerating from "Marie Provost" (about a silent film star who is eaten by her pet dachshund) to "Rollers Show," an up-tempo salute to the teen idol Bay City Rollers. Behind it all was Lowe's fondness of and talent for country rock. Unlike the Eagles, who seemed to do it because they were too tired to really rock, Lowe embraced the style and used it as a platform for his acidly witty lyrics.

Lowe's cool was one of intelligence but not intellectualism, and it allowed him to stand apart from the pandering mainstream and the adolescent punk fringe. Unlike most others who affect a certain superiority, Lowe wasn't a poseur. He had the chops -- musically and lyrically -- to back it up. The reputation for apparent laziness as a producer he developed while working on Costello's albums underscored this attitude: if the idea was good enough, it would carry its own weight. Endless takes and overdubs just weren't worth the effort; he crafted the song, not the record. This respect for the listener -- giving pride of place to the lyrics and assuming the consumer doesn't need everything spelled out -- usually vanishes when singer-songwriters get hold of big budgets and large studios, but Lowe kept his cool.

Labour of Lust, his 1979 album, proved the point. The little touches that make the album were the result of inspiration, not endless repetition -- such as the almost-corny backing vocals of "Cruel To Be Kind" and the cutting guitar line in "Cracking Up." As a whole, the album's mordantly witty love songs are just as good, or rather great, as the stuff on Pure Pop. Also in 1979, Lowe produced the Pretenders' first single, "Stop Your Sobbing," which landed the group a major label contract, and married Carlene Carter, daughter and granddaughter, respectively, of country icons June Carter and Maybelle Carter.

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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