Soundchecks Music Reviews

The Old Magic by Nick Lowe

Proper Records PRPCD085

Nick Lowe

review by Andrew Darlington

For Nick Lowe, the one-time 'Jesus of Cool', there's always been Americana, even as far back as his early Brinsley Schwartz days. But when it was done with a London accent over a rocking backbeat, or in cahoots with Rockpile, it could be viciously effective. He even married into the Johnny Cash clan - the video for his 1979 hit Cruel To Be Kind is an affectionate pastiche of his wedding to Carlene Carter. He achieved Nashville credibility, and came out the other side intact. But, it must be said, this album is Americana without the spark.

He might be aged 61 ("Lord, I never thought I'd see thirty...") but he's already prematurely anticipating "singing 'Rock Of Ages with the angels." And to match this downbeat mood, the pulse of the songs is tired and maudlin. The Old Magic..? Well, maybe. To paraphrase another of his old songs, 'I knew Nick Lowe when he used to rock 'n' roll'. And the cover-girl cutie suggests a kind of retro-1950s soda-pop vibe.

But each time you feel the tempo pick up a mite - as it does on the above-quoted Checkout Time, or the mildly up-tempo Restless Feeling, it's seldom enough. It's not that they're bad songs, because they're not. After all, considering his pedigree, you'd expect nothing less. It's just that they're not labours of lust, more homely tales of everyday heartache; bar-room lounge-core ballads and domestic blue-collar narratives of resigned regret.

On his previous Proper Records set, At My Age (2007), he covered Faron Young's Feel Again, and you could cite Faron as context as he's already speeding past world-weary maturity towards whatever lies beyond. While it's true you can't artificially replicate the lost youthful energies he delivers on the recent Rockpile Live At Montreux 1980 album (Eagle Records, 2011), he's maybe assuming the well-aged 'grand old man' role a tad too close for comfort. Is it too much to ask him to 'pump it up' just a little bit more..?

There are 11 tracks. The Poisoned Rose comes courtesy of Elvis Costello, maintaining their long association, with the melancholy sentimentality of "a poisoned rose on a Valentine's card" there to embody a love gone wrong. Nick's always been rock-savvy, and there are neat in-references to other musics, in Shame On The Rain (borrowed from Tom T. Hall), it's 'raining in my heart' - as with Buddy Holly, and 'on my window too', while the fractured marital home stands a chance of being restored with the witty application of a little self-referential 'peace, love and understanding'.

For the rest, You Don't Know Me At All comes from Jeff West, all the others are Lowe originals, with the Latin Maverick-esque Somebody Cares For Me co-written with reliable keyboard-player Geraint Watkins. Stoplight Roses represent "love's promise in cellophane" offered as a guilty 'dead give-away' of marital misbehaviour, taken at funereal pace. While House For Sale furthers the separation. He's had enough. Send the van to get his stuff. He's leaving like he's getting out of jail. A Floyd Cramer-style piano tripping leads into Sensitive Man, though he warns that first impressions could steer you wrong.

The one-time 'Basher' now admits I Read A Lot, but he does it because she's left him high and dry in a loveless land, his emotional bereavement sweetened with Norman Bergen's strings and tasteful horn solo. Nick's dry frayed vocals are placed in the uncluttered setting of his regular group-nucleus which picks and noodles like seasoned country pros, guitarists Steve Donnelly and Johnny Scott propelled by drummer Robert 'Bobby Irwin' Treherne, with Matt Radford's double bass adding resonance, and Neil Brockbank's vibraphone and mixing skills extending the palette.

Unobtrusive horns and cooing support vocals croon doo-wop with the best (guests Paul Carrack, Annie Whitehead and Ron Sexsmith lurking in the credits). Each song has a competently well-crafted lyrical quirk or effective melodic kink to nudge their familiar themes, but - cruel to be kind, it's more as though he's offering song-writing demos for others to pick over and select, rather than a complete artistic statement of his own. So it goes...

Edited by Tony Lee
for PIGASUS Press