Nick Lowe

***The Wilderness Years (1974-77; Demon, 1991)
****1/2Basher: The Best of Nick Lowe (Columbia, 1989)
****Party of One (1990; Upstart, 1995)
**1/2Impossible Bird (Upstart, 1994)
**1/2Dig My Mood (Upstart, 1998)
***The Convincer (Yep Roc, 2001)
Brinsley Schwarz:
****1/2Nervous on the Road/The New Favourites of Brinsley Schwarz (1972-74; Beat Goes On, 1995)
****1/2Surrender to the Rhythm (1970-74; EMI, 1991)

When the great wave of punk broke on American shores in the late '70s, it swept with it more conventional, pop-oriented songsters who had been pining for a second shot at the English Invasion. Nick Lowe, who had played bass and wrote and sung most of the songs in the pub rock band Brinsley Schwarz, was ready to break big. But by the time Columbia released Lowe's first solo album in the U.S., its title had changed from Jesus of Cool to Pure Pop for Now People, and the cover, a mosaic of six portraits of Nick the Pop Chameleon, had been altered to give him a tie sporting the stars and stripes.

All that's left of Lowe's seven Columbia albums is the retrospective Basher, which favors (14 of 25 cuts) the first two albums. The first album was a smorgasbord of neoclassic rockers like "Heart of the City," darkly wry tales like "Marie Provost" and "36 Inches High," fan letters to David Bowie ("(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass") and the Bay City Rollers, and the cynical "Music for Money." The second album was the risque Labour of Lust, where he takes delight in making Americans squirm and sings "when I see you I get an extension/and I don't mean Alexander Graham Bell's invention." Those two were tours de force, but in Lowe's later albums the irrepressible humor often turned trite and even sappy ("Time Wounds All Heels" is one of the better ones).

Lowe's 1990 album Part of One was a return to form, the music sharpened up by the return of producer Dave Edmunds, and songs like "All Men Are Liars" flashed his old bite. But Lowe's '90s albums have turned to a soft rock with little to distinguish itself.

Still, Lowe's early work is worth revisiting. The Wilderness Years collects solo demos and singles predating Jesus of Cool; it's a mixed bag, but has some interesting pieces, including a startling cover of "Born a Woman." Even better are two Brinsley Schwarz reissues, the career-spanning Surrender to the Rhythm and the twofer of their last (and best) albums, Nervous on the Road and New Favourites. The Brinsleys started out as an English analog to LA's country-rock, but they soon settled into the pubs and expanded their repertoire to include r&b like "I Like It Like That" and "Trying to Live My Life Without You," while their originals fit and often exceeded their inspirations. Lowe became the main songwriter, and two of his greatest songs appeared on New Favourites: the beautiful soul ballad "Ever Since You're Gone" and the self-explanatory "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?"


Unreviewed albums (out-of-print, unavailable):

****1/2Jesus of Cool (Demon, 1978)
****1/2Labour of Lust (Demon, 1979)
***1/2Nick the Knife (Demon, 1982)
***The Abominable Showman (Demon, 1983)
***Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (Demon, 1984)
16 All Time Lowes (Diablo, 1984)
The Rose of England (Demon, 1985)
***1/2Pinker and Prouder Than Previous (Demon, 1988)
The Doings (Demon, 1999)
Live on the Battlefield [EP] (Rounder, 1995)
Brinsley Schwarz:
Brinsley Schwarz/Despite It All (1970; Beat Goes On)
What Is So Funny About Peace Love & Understanding (1972-75; Hux/Dressed to Kill, 2002)
Original Golden Greats/Fifteen Thoughts of Brinsley Schwarz (Beat Goes On, 2000)