Six vital releases from one of the most underappreciated titans of power pop are finally back in print.
Nick Lowe has had an unusual -- not to mention creatively fruitful -- career over the past several decades. Making his bones in the early ‘70s as a member of pub rockers Brinsley Schwarz, he later became a staff producer for legendary punk label Stiff Records, producing early, groundbreaking albums by the likes of the Damned, Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. His solo career was also blooming, with late ‘70s hits in both his native England (“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”) as well as the States (“Cruel to Be Kind”). After a pair of critically acclaimed solo albums (The Jesus of Cool, Labour of Lust), Lowe's quasi-supergroup Rockpile made one terrific album, Seconds of Pleasure, in 1980.
This list of musical accomplishments would be enough for any singer/songwriter/bass player, but Lowe soldiered on throughout the ‘80s (and beyond). The six solo albums he made from 1982 to 1990 didn’t exactly set the pop charts on fire, but they helped solidify Lowe as a songwriter, performer, and arranger of the highest caliber, drawing from his love of roots-rock, rockabilly, Beatlesque pop and the user-friendly new wave that was in vogue at the time. These albums have been out of print for years, but Yep Roc has righted these wrongs by reissuing all six albums on CD and vinyl.
Nick the Knife, the 1982 release that kicked off Lowe’s second wave of solo commercial output, may be the strongest album of the bunch. Clearly building on the creative high he reached with the previous solo albums (in addition to his work with Rockpile), Lowe digs deep into his bag of tricks with up-tempo ravers like “Burning” and “Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine", the lusty, tuneful pop-funk of “Let Me Kiss Ya” (sounding like Paul Simon meets Paul McCartney at a Meters concert), in addition to a couple of gorgeous tracks co-written by then-wife Carlene Carter (“My Heart Hurts", “Too Many Teardrops”), and a love for semi-novelty numbers (“Ba Doom,” “Zulu Kiss”). He revisits a Rockpile track, “Heart", retooling it from the Motown frenzy of the original recording to a more intimate, laid-back reggae arrangement.
The Abominable Showman followed in 1984, and as the title implies, the intimacy of its predecessor is replaced with a larger, more audacious production style. Lowe seems to have caught up with the ‘80s, to an extent. The songs are still great. “Ragin’ Eyes” sounds like something Buddy Holly would’ve cranked had he survived that plane crash. "(For Every Woman Who Ever Made a Fool of a Man There's a Woman Made a) Man of a Fool” continues his love for draping relationships in parenthetical silliness. Also, Lowe continues his songwriting relationship with Carter on the shimmering soul of “Time Wounds All Heels". As on Nick the Knife, Yep Roc tacks on some bonus tracks, this time in the form of live tracks from 1982 -- “Cracking Up", as well as the song Lowe wrote that became a smash for Costello: “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding".
Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (1984) introduces his new backing band of the same name and is an earnest attempt to more heartily embrace country and roots rock (which, to be fair, was already a healthy aspect of his previous albums). The swirling funhouse organ of “Half a Boy and Half a Man” and the authentic honky tonk of “Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young” certainly bear this out. The rest of the album is peppered with such sonic treats as the mysterious twang of “Awesome", the Elvis Costello-produced brass-infused country funk of “L.A.F.S.” and the percussive stomp of “(Hey Big Mouth) Stand Up and Say That". As usual, Lowe’s lyrics are still as barbed as ever, sounding like pub rock’s answer to Randy Newman. His songs are filled with unreliable narrators and lecherous males: “God’s Gift to Women” contains priceless lines like “He’s labored under the impression / That he’s God’s gift to women / He says he can make her toes curl / She says he only makes her skin crawl.”
The Rose of England continues along the same lines as the previous album, albeit with a slightly more contemporary feel. John Hiatt’s “She Don’t Love Nobody” is a sturdy pop single, while “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” -- a song Lowe wrote in the ‘70s and was popularized by fellow Rockpile member Dave Edmunds -- is given a modern kick in the pants, produced by Huey Lewis and featuring Huey’s band the News. Granted, from a production standpoint it basically sounds like a Huey Lewis and the News song, but the quality of the songwriting is miles past “The Heart of Rock and Roll". The Rose of England isn’t necessarily a record company’s bid for Lowe to top the pop charts, though. “Seven Nights to Rock” is a lively, caffeinated rockabilly cover that feels like a timeless whirl through a more carefree time, and there isn’t a synthesizer or overprocessed drum sound in sight.
Pinker and Prouder Than Previous has long been considered one of Lowe’s lesser efforts, and while the fact that it was recorded during various sessions throughout 1986 and 1987 does give it a bit of a cobbled-together feel and the songs are not as flat-out memorable as some previous efforts, it’s still a worthwhile release with plenty to like. The covers are primarily from Lowe’s friends and contemporaries, including Hiatt’s “Love Gets Strange” and Graham Parker’s “Black Lincoln Continental” (a rousing rave-up that would’ve fit nicely on the soundtrack to Baby Driver). The originals have a warmth and charm, including “(You’re My) Wildest Dream” (featuring Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds on harmonica), the bright rocker “Big Hair” and the lively shuffle “Lovers Jamboree” (co-written by Paul Carrack). Tender ballads like “Crying in My Sleep” and “Cry It Out” round out the album.
The final album in the back-in-print series is 1990’s Party of One, and with Dave Edmunds on board for production duties and Lowe pal Ry Cooder on guitar, there’s an uncomplicated rockabilly feel to the whole affair. “You Got the Look I Like” opens the album with a lazy, mid-tempo twang. The hillbilly hiccup of “Shting-Shtang” shows that Lowe hasn’t lost his penchant for goofy, catchy semi-throwaways -- it may also be a sly nod to “Tanque-Rae” from The Abominable Showman. “Gai Gin Man” is a fun tribute to Lowe’s unlikely, real-life Japanese fan base, complete with stranger-in-a-strange-land lyrics and a Westerner’s view of the Far East (“Osaka, Sapporo, that’s a two-hour hop / Just time to grab a bite in the Skysnak Shop / “You've only got to utter one 'seema-seng' / That's gonna set you back about a thousand yen”). And of course, any description of Party of One wouldn’t be complete without a mention of “All Men are Liars", another one of Lowe’s classic Newmanesque unreliable narrator tales, complete with stinging pop culture references: “Do you remember Rick Astley / He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly / He’s said I’m never gonna give you up or let you down / Well I’m here to tell you that Dick’s a clown.”
It wasn’t long after Party of One that Lowe -- thanks to a massive influx of royalty cash after a cover of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was featured in the soundtrack to The Bodyguard -- began to enter a new phase of his career, swapping a younger man’s power pop for the laid-back country gentleman sounds more akin to a middle-aged songwriter. Albums like The Impossible Bird, Dig My Mood, The Convincer and At My Age show a gracefully aging man whose sound may have mellowed but whose lyrical snarl remains as sharp as ever. In the meantime, Lowe’s more youthful era is back in print; it’s plenty of proof that Nick Lowe is one of the finest songwriters of his -- or any -- generation.