Oct 132011

Rough draft?

One of the hazards with any of KingEd‘s Insta-Reviews is the chance that his gut feelings on a new release will not hold over time. Although Rock Town Hall stands behind even the most bile-filled reviews of our self-appointed King of New Music Reviews, we reserve the right—and believe we owe it to our readers—to occaisionally revisit one of his pieces, such as his recent review of Nick Lowe‘s latest album, and offer consumers a more balanced, clear-headed review that will better reflect the refined tastes of our readers and advertisers. In that spirit, I have taken the past week to let Nick Lowe’s The Old Magic sink in over repeated listens.  I hope my review will stand as an alternate point of view for consumers’ consideration.

Nick Lowe, The Old Magic

Rock Town Hall: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Up to this point, Nick Lowe’s “mature” solo career has been an incidental affair, something that has surfaced in the interludes between public radio interviews and photo shoots. His previous releases — 1998’s Dig My Mood, 2001’s The Convincer, and 2007’s At My Age — were earnest, respectable efforts that offered their fair share of pleasures but did not establish a distinct or significant new musical identity for Lowe apart from his Jesus of Cool persona. The Old Magic finds Lowe taking a giant step — not away from the shadow of his Rockpile-era works but beyond what that understandably history-bound artist has been able to achieve on record in recent times.

In terms of consistency, craftsmanship and musical experimentation, The Old Magic surpasses all his solo work and any Rockpile-related album since Labour of Lust. It does so by returning to the dance beats, big grooves and modern edge that have characterized Lowe’s best work. The key to all Lowe’s classics — from “So It Goes” and “Marie Provost” to “Cruel to Be Kind” and “I Knew the Bride” — is that they are built from the rhythm up: The Old Magic, which was almost entirely constructed around Lowe’s rhythm guitar, is a return to that modus operandi.

Lowe has poured his heart into this album. The strongest songs — “Sensitive Man,” “I Read A Lot,” “Shame on the Rain” and “Restless Feeling” — are also the most candidly personal. In the past, he has slipped into personae — the Born Fighter, Little Hitler, God’s Gift to Women— but he lets his guard down to an unprecedented degree on Magic; the beautiful ballads draw on feelings of loneliness, vulnerability, spiritual yearning and, as always, life with the ladies.

These gains in maturity have taken no toll on Lowe’s inner rock & roller. The Gai-Gin Man can still swagger at the top of his — or anybody else’s — game. The Old Magic resembles Lowe’s best albums in that it’s a varied yet cohesive collection of ballads, retro rockers, and one country song. But at his age, he is free to cast off the pub-rock anchor that both defines and (at times) confines Lowe.

Making the most of this opportunity to stretch himself, Lowe has recruited some outstanding guests, many of them younger artists whom he directly influenced. John McEntire of Tortoise collaborates on the wistful, melodic opening track, “Stoplight Roses,” which boasts authentic tank reverb. Jeff Tweedy of Wilco produces and co-writes “Restless Feeling,” a soulful cocktail shuffle, featuring background vocals by Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, that evokes the sweeping romanticism of any one of the Nat King Cole-influenced numbers from his previous three albums.

On “You Don’t Know Me at All,” one of my favorite tracks, Wyclef Jean helps burnish a subtle ska-cum-Memphis-inflected groove. Employing some of his most moving and nuanced vocal phrasing, he confides, “Well you don’t know mad from sad/You don’t know ‘splainin’ from complainin’/You don’t know next who you’ll be blamin’/And you don’t know me at all.” The lyrics portray a guy who’s got it all — fame, fortune and the means to indulge any materialistic and hedonistic impulse he might divine — but is wise enough in his late middle age to know there’s something more out there.

“Checkout Time,” a rollicking, country-tinged collaboration with Jim James of My Morning Jacket — and featuring an indelible guitar hook from Nels Cline — offers a revealing glimpse of what Lowe is seeking: “I’m 61 years old now/Lord, I never thought I’d see 30.” The mark of My Morning Jacket is overt on “Checkout Time,” but the band’s influence subtly courses through the rest of the reverb-heavy album; like James and company earlier in the decade, Lowe has adapted modern rhythms and contemporary production techniques to his own naturalistic rock & roll ends.

“Somebody Cares for Me,” featuring Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth, is a Tex-Mex rocker floating within a New Orleans gumbo. No one walks quietly and carries as finely carved a walking stick as Lowe. The tight blues shuffle “Poisoned Rose” is highlighted by some brief but fiery gutteral singing from Lowe. Like a good blues workout, it leaves you hungry for more, and this masterful use of tension and restraint is part of what makes The Old Magic so beguiling.

It may seem a truism, but it’s worth noting that he is — along with John Hiatt, Richard Thompson, Conor Oberst, and Win Butler — one of the great songwriters of this age. And he is in exceptional form on The Old Magic. If anything, Lowe’s voice is rounder and warmer than ever, and he brings a new richness of phrasing to the heartbroken, confessional, extraordinary closing track, “‘Til the Real Thing Comes Along.”

After all of the excursions undertaken on The Old Magic, Lowe brings it all back home with this last number, which is a musically rich and lyrically reflective ballad in the grand tradition of The Drifters. Lowe offers unabashedly human, vulnerable sentiments, akin to those expressed by Mick Jagger on “Brand New Set of Rules,” from his superb solo album Goddess in the Doorway.

It is a clear-eyed and inspired Nick Lowe who crafted The Old Magic, an insuperably strong record that in time may well reveal itself to be a classic. World, meet Nick Lowe, mature solo artist.


  20 Responses to “Attitude Adjustment: Nick Lowe’s The Old Magic

  1. Nice review. If you like “Heart” off Nick the Knife:


    I think you’ll enjoy this new one.

    Nick the Knife was my first Lowe album, so I have a bit of a soft spot the ballads. Also, just checking the writing credits on Nick the Knife — I didn’t know his ex-wife Carlene Carter gets credit on two of those songs, including one of my faves “Too Many Teardrops.”

  2. Hm. That’s one positive long-form record review. I don’t think it will convince me to buy This Old Magic but I love it as a detailed homage to those Rolling Stone Featured Reviews from late 70’s – 80’s. And a good counterpoint to King Ed’s more modern-style criticism: “This album pissed me off because …”.

    I’ll take the Coke Classic over the New Coke.

  3. Right — Spinner has dropped any type of review at all — it’s just “sounds like” . . . and they leave it at that.

  4. jeangray

    Is this a joke???

  5. BigSteve

    Are you proud of yourself, Mod? Was it your goal that no one would know what you’re on about?

  6. BigSteve

    But I can’t tell what the target of the sarcasm is. Are you poking fun at name-dropping reviewers, or are you saying that the album is derivative? Neither?

  7. OK, truth be told I took a lot more time than KingEd listening to Lowe’s new album. Despite repeated listens and a generally better attitude, I can’t stand it. I think I like it less than KingEd. I know, however, that Faith in Nick Lowe is a key component of many a Townsperson’s rock spiritual life, mine included. So, in my role as the site’s editor, I did what Jann Wenner would do for an album like Mick Jagger’s Goddess in the Doorway: I gave it a 6-diamond review (out of 5 diamonds, no less!). People called Wenner a kiss-ass, a sell-out, and so forth. That’s short-sighted. Imagine where rock may have headed in Rolling Stone‘s heyday had he not written a contradictory review of some ’80s Stones album, blatantly contradicting a negative review that one of his staff critics gave the album, maybe a week earlier. I’m blanking on which album that was, and it’s really hard to get anything specific out of the Google search terms “+Jann Wenner” “+Rolling Stones review.” Could we have moved forward at that time in our rock development without a continued belief that the Stones still had their “best album since Exile” in their hip pocket? In a similar fashion, with my finger on the pulse of our community, I felt it was important that someone stand up for Lowe’s honor and the integrity of his new album – and for our own honor and integrity as we age gracefully. I couldn’t find the Stones review that Wenner drafted, but I did find his Goddess review. It was an extremely helpful template.

  8. tonyola

    It was Some Girls that Wenner defended against a negative review by Paul Nelson. In the same six-page article in the September 21, 1978 issue, Wenner also reamed out Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus for daring to give Dylan’s Street Legal a negative review, all but accusing them outright of being vindictive and petty.

    Listen, Wenner could be very much a toadying blowhard. In September 1979, he not only breathlessly declared that Slow Train Coming was the best Dylan album since the recording of the Basement Tapes in 1967, he also stated that Bob was “..the greatest singer of our time. No one is better. No one is even very close”. You can get up off your knees now, Jann, and be sure to wipe off your mouth.

  9. BigSteve

    But I still don’t know what you hated about the Nick Lowe record.

  10. I can’t stand how precious Lowe sings such tired tales of broken romance, etc, using musical devices that are not only directly modeled after song styles of the distant past but of songs from his previous 3 albums, each of which pulled from the same bag of barely pre-rock and early rock music. I’m all for tradition and building off tradition and all that good stuff, but these songs don’t sound like they “belong” to him at this point. And I’m not expecting the songs to be personal or autobiographical but somehow “unique” to his spirit. I really believe we possess a distinct spirit and the best – or at least most interesting things we produce give off that quality. I’m not feeling it on this album. Who am I to judge these qualities, you ask? I’m an intelligent, longtime Lowe fan who believes deeply in this notion of an artist’s spiritual core. Maybe Lowe and his maker could point out to me how wrong I am, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and call bullshit on this album in terms of its relation to the artist’s core, unique spirit. Life’s too short for me to dedicate to Nick Lowe’s cabinet-making abilities.

    The songs have an ass-kissing, museum piece quality to them that is matched by that goofy promo photo 2K, I believe, pointed out and that seem to be playing into the likes of Terry Gross and various other public radio/AAA programmers. I feel like a musical equivalent of a somalier is appearing at my stereo to point out the qualities of this new album before I get a chance to hear a note of it. Even while I’m playing the album I hear Rock Somalier’s voice in my ear, pointing out the “oaken” qualities of this or that song, with a hint of hibiscus and toejam. I have come to depend on Nick Lowe for spiritual support on gaining depth, directness, and simplicity with age, not encouragement to prematurely check myself into an old age home. I’m sorry I’ve been such a big baby about this. There are few other artists I’d rather interview/meet one day than Nick Lowe, and if word of this ever gets to him I’ve got no shot. I love the guy and will still buy his next record the day it comes out, but love has its price, and sometimes that’s being less than reasonable and polite.

  11. hrrundivbakshi

    Love the concept of the “Rock Sommelier” — though I think you’re wrong on the new Lowe LP. I think it was the Rock Sommeliers who got me to buy my first Jackson Browne Turde album.

  12. Thanks, but I still don’t know what you like about the Nick Lowe record.

  13. jeangray

    I don’ understand! Why pledge to buy his next album when you KNOW it will blow? I am very confused here. I’ve read other Town Hall members saying the same thing about other artists. Where’s the objectivity??? Am I missing the sarcasm again?

  14. hrrundivbakshi

    Two things: one, that review was hysterically terrible. Thanks, and sorry I idn’t read it before posting — not that it would have changed my comment. Two: whatchoo mean you don’t know why I like the album? I said this in response to KingEd’s vastly superior review:

    I really like the album! More specifically: I thought “The Convincer” was absolutely brilliant. This is merely extremely good. It’s is an excursion even further in retro-style, and that kind of museum work may not bug me the same way it bugs others, e.g., you. Plus, of all pop music idioms, the skirting-the-edge-of-hokey caucasoid radio pop from the 1950s is surely a form that can be aped without regard to issues of “authenticity.” And I think there’s lots to be recaptured from that era.

    Anyhow, I liked it. It’s meaningful songwriting wrapped in a form that has the reputation of being light and fluffy. I think it works.

  15. I bit on this — but, I didn’t find this album that bad really.

  16. No sarcasm this time, jeangray. Why should I assume his next album will blow? I honestly like-to-love Lowe’s previous 3 albums – and LOVE a few songs from even the one I merely “like” (ie, The Convincer). As a yon’ teen I cut my teeth on his first two albums, all the stuff he produced for Elvis Costello, the Rockpile album, and just the general vibe of all Lowe has always stood for. I own all but one, I believe, Brinsley Schwarz record. I reserve the right to be a big baby because I can’t stand his new album, but I am also loyal to the guy. He’s going to have to crank out another turd or two for me to stop buying his albums on the day of their release, which I did cease doing for many years following the disappointment of the 3 albums that followed Labour of Lust.

  17. Thanks, you did write about why you liked that album already. Sorry I forgot. I was most directing my “no, you are!” comment to BigSteve, who I do not believe has yet stated his feelings on why the album may be better than KingEd or I hear it. Am I wrong about that too? If so, sorry.

    I’m not trying to deny you of your liking of the new album, but that phrase you write, “meaningful songwriting wrapped in a form…,” gets to some of the things I don’t like about it. There’s too much SONGwriting on this album. The songs themselves are stained with Lowe’s craftsman’s sweat. The seams are showing; he forgot to erase some of his carpenter’s pencil’s guidelines. I want to HEAR his songs, not have Rock Sommalier point out their qualities. I have not been so distracted trying to dig an album in years.

  18. BigSteve

    I like the album because I like what Nick Lowe does, and I just see the new one as a further refinement of what he does. I don’t want everything to be refined, but refinement in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Same with craftsmanship. I like it. I’m not hearing what you guys hear, some kind of craftsmanship divorced from, what? inspiration? I usually find that kind of argument somewhat dubious.

    Again, I don’t find this one any whiter than previous efforts, though perhaps the determination not to rock has somewhat obscured the soul and country influences. (I heard that recently Huey Lewis tried invite Lowe onstage for an encore of I Knew the Bride, and he demurred, saying “Sorry, Huey, I don’t rock anymore.”)

    So I don’t know, maybe people are just tired of his new approach. We know what his mature style is, and we don’t need one more album of it, perhaps? And maybe this one is a little smoother, and it lacks darker material like The Beast in Me or I Trained Her to Love Me. I Read a Lot or House for Sale are sad, but they lack that approach he had been using where the singer of the song is a cad. I guess I can see how some listeners might prefer the earlier style over the new more somber style, but to me it just shows that he’s not doing exactly the same thing.

  19. Fair enough. Thanks for your thoughts. It’s funny, our local NPR station, which we usually listen to during breakfast, was in the middle of fundraising, so I switched over to our AAA station, just in time to hear the DJ announce that he was going to play a new Nick Lowe song. I complained to my wife that this new album is really bumming me out, that’s it’s more of the same. “Let’s see what you think,” I said. A few measures into the song she said, “Yeah, it’s too bad. It sucks.” So, at least she’s got my back:)

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