There's never a bad time to be a fan of Nick Lowe or Dave Edmunds (though the mid-'80s were a little lean) and 2004 is shaping up to be one of the better years in recent memory for such fandom. Their beloved British pub rock band, Brinsley Schwarz, just released Cruel to be Kind, a collection of early-'70s archival BBC recordings, and now comes the re-release (and upgrade) of Seconds of Pleasure, from Lowe and Edmunds' days as pub rockers/power poppers Rockpile. The band -- guitarist/keyboardist Edmunds, bassist Lowe, along with guitarist Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams -- played together all throughout the 1970s but managed to capture their magic on tape only once, for 1980's Seconds of Pleasure. A rift between Lowe and Edmunds ensured no follow-up album, but that doesn't detract from the fact that Seconds is an unmitigated masterpiece.
Reading up on Lowe and Edmunds in preparation of this review, I get the feeling that they were the Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, respectively, of their day. Lowe, like Tweedy, was prone to more straightforward rockers and was a little more loosey-goosey, to boot. Meanwhile, Edmunds, like Farrar, felt compelled to play the role of Keeper of the Flame, recreating the Sun Studios sound that preceded him. Of course, by the time Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo's swan song, rolled around, Tweedy and Farrar's songwriting personae couldn't both fit under the Tupelo banner, and one gets the same vibe from Lowe and Edmunds on Seconds. While they share songwriting credits with Bremner and Williams on the album's original twelve tracks, they alternate lead vocals, ensuring that no one wields too much power in the band (though they do let Bremner take the mic for "Heart" and "You Ain't Nothin' But Fine").
But rather than cancel each other out, the two men use their different strengths to push each other to greater heights. Edmunds' focus reigns in Lowe's wilders impulses, and Lowe's palpable sense of fun loosens up the staid Edmunds. Among the six originals -- they're all highlights, so I'll just cherry-pick a few for closer examination -- "Now and Always" could be a lost Buddy Holly track; the chugging "Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)" is an old Brinsley Schwarz chestnut with a new coat of paint, courtesy of Edmunds's piano; and "When I Write the Book" matches Lowe's darkly funny lyrics -- "When I write the book about my love / It'll be about a man who's torn in half / About his hopes and ambitions wasted through the years / The pain will be writing on every page in tears" -- with a tune so catchy one barely realizes how bleak the lyrics are.
And the covers prove that as good as Lowe and Edmunds are at penning originals, they're equally adept at digging up fantastic old tunes and putting the Rockpile stamp on them. At the risk of sounding heretical, the covers are almost better than the originals. Lowe captures the illicit love implicit in Gene Chandler's "Teacher Teacher" ("Lesson Two: Lovin' you"), while Edmunds puts a new-wave spin on "Wrong Again (Let's Face It)" (written by the dudes from Squeeze!) and wins the award for the album's funniest song, by unearthing Kip Anderson's bizarro pub rocker/overeaters' anthem, "Knife and Fork". I'd be doing readers a disservice if I didn't mention the song's most priceless line: "You wear a size 44 / Have to turn sideways to get through the door / Girl, you let the knife and fork dig your grave".
Less goofy, but equally winning, are four Everly Brothers' covers culled from the Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds Sing the Everly Brothers EP. Dialing down the rock and playing up the vocal harmonies, the two turn in a batch of reverent covers (surely Edmunds' idea?). While these four songs have been available since the CD's original pressing back in 1988, this newest version of the album also adds three new live recordings -- "Back to Schooldays", "They Called it Rock", and "Crawling from the Wreckage" -- that only hint at the band's legendary live power.
Kudos to Columbia/Legacy for letting a new batch of fans get the opportunity to hear two masters operating at the peak of their powers.