Oct 072011

[audio:https://www.rocktownhall.com/blogs/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/01-Stoplight-Roses.mp3|titles=Nick Lowe, “Stoplight Roses”]

This is terrible, this may be the worst attitude I’ve had about a new release in years. It’s been 2 weeks since I purchased Nick Lowe‘s new album, The Old Magic. I’ve yet to spin it. As anyone who knows me and my Insta-Reviews can tell you, “KingEd don’t sit on new releases for 2 weeks.” OK, I sat on a pile of Robert Pollard-related releases sent to me by Townsman kpdexter for too long, but that was because life was crazy busy, not because I had a bad attitude about listening to Pollards then-latest 19 albums.

I’ve got a real bad attitude about this new Nick Lowe album. Let’s start with the first contributing factor:

Rough draft?

Who designed this thing, Nick’s neice? Lindsey Buckingham or his neice—or whatever PhotoShop novice designed the cover for his new album? It’s just blah. I know the designer’s working some Olde Tyme ’50s fonts and colors into this cover design for obvious stylistic ties to Lowe’s recent 15-year run of recordings, but this cover looks incomplete, slapped together, like a K-Tel knockoff to cash in on American Grafitti and Happy Days. I’m not usually a stickler for such details, but if you’re going to have a woman dressed to look like she belongs on an album cover from the 1950s/early ‘1960s, shouldn’t she have hips? And if you’re shooting for a certain period album cover, isn’t there some essential trim missing?

Yeah, yeah, Mature Artist Nick Lowe probably couldn’t give a 3-year-old shit about the album cover, but truth be told, it was the first thing that grated on me before I’d heard a single note.

Next up was the 5 minutes of a recent interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, a radio show out of my hometown Philadelphia that I’ve proudly tuned into for as long as it’s been on the air. She’s had Lowe on for excellent interviews in the past, but in recent years Terry has begun to grate on me. She seems more caught up in her own little world than I am able to be. I’m sure we share some blame, but she’s taken to gushing over too many of her old favorites, attributing a few too many “serious” assumptions to questions for her interview subjects, doing too many shows for my interest on the Middle East, and generally coming off as increasingly cloistered. How dare anyone become too attached to their personal interests as they settle into middle age!

The only bit of the interview I heard involved Gross breathlessly complimenting Lowe for the imagery of a song from his new album, “Stoplight Roses,” which he had just played in the studio. It was a nice, little song in that Olde Tyme Vein he’s been digging, spanning pre- and early-rock pop songcraft, that I have truly loved over the course of his Mature Period. Terry posed some fangirl compliment disguised as broader question with her deep personal concerns about the state of his marriage. The question began to annoy me. Lowe’s response raised the annoyance level, as he cranked up the old Woody Allen conceipt—”I’m not an autobiographical writer”—before explaining the little personal story that inspired “Stoplight Roses.”

It’s clear, right, why Gross’ question began to annoy me, especially if you heard her confidential tone, like she was catching up with her dear old friend and the phone conversation just happened to be recorded? I trust I don’t need to break that down any further. As for Lowe’s answer, I know I shouldn’t care whether the songs are autobiographical or not, and I really don’t, provided I dig the song. But as he went on to explain, although the song was not directly autobiographical it did spring from an actual observation followed by a thought about human behavior. At a certain point, what’s not personal? And what’s really the point in an artist claiming that a work of art is “not autobiographical” other than to put the spotlight on the artist’s sense of Creativity? “I created this work out of thin air,” the Artist tells us, “inspired by the Muses!” Admit it, who hasn’t created anything without some form of the following thought creeping into his or her mind: I create, therefore I am at least a little more than a mere human!

Maybe I’m wrong in assuming this and have just admitted yet another pathetic personal detail about myself, but that’s the vibe I get from denails of autobiographical content. It may relate to the long-held beef of my close, personal friend E. Pluribus Gergely, who feels the term “genius” is too liberally applied to all manner of artists. I feel like some artists  work a little too hard at, with the help of their media supporters and fans, convincing me of their Master Craftsmanship. It’s like the conventional wisdom that John Hiatt is a “great songwriter!” Why? Because he’s managed to have a career with maybe the least-pleasing voice and hairline in the history of rock? Or those B+ movies that nevertheless are lauded for their “excellent screenplay!” No one has ever handed me the screenplay before I sat down to watch a movie. What theaters do you people attend?

I’ve followed and dug Nick Lowe’s career since I first heard him in high school because he can be so effective at making records. He’s got style, more than enough soul, humor, and a great voice and sense of taste (or lack thereof, in the early days, when such a lack was needed). He’s written some great songs, but I haven’t stuck it out through His Cowboy Outfit and other mediocre-to-terrible albums so I could appreciate his Songwriting or speculate about the state of his personal life. Lowe doesn’t have to advertise the fact that he’s a craftsman. Isn’t that one of the things that’s best about him? And like the craftspeople we appreciate most in our everyday lives, he’s not only delivered quality work but positive vibrations. A stone-faced, reliable handyman who knocks out any job you give him is to be treasured, but one who does his job and chats you and your family up for a few minutes is even better. You enjoy the banter and offer the guy a cup of coffee before he leaves for his next job. I enjoy the banter with Nick and offer him a cup of coffee before I move onto my next album. I surely don’t want to speak in hushed tones about the state of Nick Lowe’s marriage or hear the details of a half-decent song about some sad-sack buying his woman a single, manufactured rose from a streetside vendor!

Musically, I’ve heard The Old Magic too many times before. I hate to say it, but the act is worn thin. If Nick (and not just Terry) is trying to tell me he’s no longer a “handyman” but a “restoration contractor,” or whatever the appropriate fancier term in this analogous range might be, then I’m here to tell him to keep his day job. Cole Porter and that ilk of songwriter is long gone. There comes a time when rewriting the standards is little more, at best, than an exercise in keeping Rod Stewart‘s career alive.


  38 Responses to “The Bad Attitude Club Presents: Nick Lowe’s The Old Magic

  1. The cover has the opposite effect on me. I loved it the moment I saw it…

    You’re getting much more off your chest here in this rant than the cover issue for sure…

    I agree with some of your general crit of Terry but my appreciation of Mr. Lowe is not diminished.

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    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.

  3. hrrundivbakshi

    Like you, however, I think the cover sucks ass. It’s not accurate pastiche, and it’s not attractive to look at. Bigger boobs! More ass!

  4. BigSteve

    KingEd: “There comes a time when rewriting the standards is little more, at best, than an exercise in keeping Rod Stewart‘s career alive.”

    So what’s he supposed to do, cut a hiphop album?

  5. In all fairness, that was a first listen on my part. And I said I went into it with a bad attitude. But no, I’m not suggesting anything of the sort. He should try making a record again, something a little less mannered, a little less airtight. I haven’t mapped it out yet, but this album has rewrites of rewrites three times over now. Each time he rewrites “It’s Freezing,” for instance, the charm of his first take on that standard type of ballad is reduced. For me it seems to be getting to the point that he’s making the same album over and over, with a bad album cover this time. Enough. Try a blues album or Stephen Foster-type songs or some other old style. Bring in an old vocal group for new textures, like Paul Simon does. Something, anything but another exercise in Songwriting. “Just let the music happen!” is my initial take on the album. I’ll try to get past these initial thoughts on follow-up listens, but see what you think when you get a chance to check it out.

  6. Maybe Nick could record with with a metal band like Lou Reed. Anthrax? Megadeath? He can’t screw up any worse than Lou has.

  7. 2000 Man

    I like that one, KingEd. I can’t get myself to buy it because of this picture:


    It makes me think that when Dick Cheney wants to rock out, the guy he grabs looks like that.

  8. The guy is 63 fer chrissakes. May you age so gracefully. Would you rather see him botoxed and bewigged like so many other antiquated rock stars?

  9. Thanks for having the stones to say how you really feel and not making excuses based on anyone’s AARP card. No one takes it easy on your beloved Stones when they crap out turd after turd, do they? No one types, “What do you want Mick and Keith to do, suddenly wear cardigans and play trad jazz with Charlie?”

  10. BigSteve

    Well he’s been through a long career of trying a bunch of different things. He’s one of those people who seem to have finally figured out what he’s doing (Bob Dylan is another). I wouldn’t describe what Lowe’s doing as caucasoid 50s pop. He’s always seemed to me to working a kind of country/soul thing, not that different in some ways from the Cowboy Outfit stuff, but more focused (and certainly less rockish).

    But the larger question for me is what can an artist like Lowe or Dylan do when he’s finally honed his art to a fine point like this. It can seem almost like a dead end, but is that just our foolish thirst for novelty speaking?

  11. No, I want him to dislodge the 4×4 that’s gotten stuck up his ass and cut the Master Craftsman schtick. Or more precisely, I want his wainscoating work judged with a little closer eye. I suspect he’s just throwing it up these days and milking middle class homeowners out of their hard-earned bread.

  12. BigSteve

    Man you do have a bad attitude. More like a jihad.

  13. Who was it, Monty Python’s Dimsdale brothers who were “cruel, but fair?” It’s a little too early for me to judge, but this album doesn’t seem to break any new emotional or sonic ground. No song has come out and grabbed me by the throat yet. And I agree with you and HVB that the cover girl needs to period-appropriate T&A.

  14. Was I talking about his music or recordings? I was simply referencing the photo that 2000 Man linked. Unlike so many in the rock world who chase the never-found Holy Grail of perpetual youth, Lowe unashamedly accepts the fact that he’s getting old, and he’s not afraid to show us, either.

    Did Lowe steal a girlfriend of yours once or something?

  15. You raise a good question. I can’t tune into Dylan anymore, but I know what you’re saying about the two of them finding a style that works for them. I will give this album way more time to see if there’s anything to it but the “Master Craftsmanship” that irks me, but I do think an artist can hone his or her style, stick with it, but keep it fresh, whether for better or worse from album to album. I don’t know if Dylan does this or not these days, but I don’t hear Lowe pushing from within his form on this album. That’s mostly what bugs me so far, that and the album cover and the 5 minutes I heard of his latest Fresh Air interview.

  16. I didn’t like this album much either, but come on. Lowe releases an album, what, once every five years now? To a very, very small sliver of an audience. I very much doubt he is doing much financial milking these days.

    I think is funny that whenever Lowe does release one of these pleasant diversions lately, there’s some post from some RTH Salieri acting like some cosmic injustice is being perpetuated here.

  17. The Piranha Bros., Doug & Dinsdale , who ruled the London underworld through a combination of violence (Dinsdale – “He sawed me leg of, split me nostrils open and nailed me ‘ead to a coffee table”.) and sarcasm (Doug – “I’ve seen grown men pull their own heads off rather than meet with Doug”.) – Glad I could clear that up.

  18. hrrundivbakshi

    …there’s some post from some RTH Salieri acting like some cosmic injustice is being perpetuated here.

    Partial post of the month!

  19. hrrundivbakshi

    BTW, diggin’ your avatar, KingEd!

  20. hrrundivbakshi

    Sheezus, if that’s what botox looks like, count me OUT.

  21. tonyola

    Actually, I don’t know whether Jagger is a botox fiend or not. It is apparent, however, that he’s not really aging gracefully.

  22. misterioso

    Haven’t heard the record but generally have liked Lowe’s “elder statesman” approach to recent records–liked The Convincer and Dig My Mood very much. Don’t like the cover, not at all. Not doing it for me. But it seems KingEd is worked up about a lot of issues and the record itself is only a part of it, and I certainly think the implied comparison to ol’ leather face Rod Stewart’s appalling “American Songbook” records is grossly unfair, and I don’t mean Terry Gross. (Who I find enormously overrated.)

  23. hrrundivbakshi

    Misterioso: we REACH on Terry Gross. That chick bugs me — always has. Fresh Air is like the Arsenio Hall Show for the wine and cheese set. Sorry, KingEd — I’ve never understood what you see in that chick.

  24. BigSteve

    KingEd” “I will give this album way more time to see if there’s anything to it but the “Master Craftsmanship” that irks me, but I do think an artist can hone his or her style, stick with it, but keep it fresh, whether for better or worse from album to album.”

    I don’t see any way to do the honing and freshening thing except with craftsmanship.

  25. misterioso

    I mean, I kind of think I am in the wine and cheese set and all. I’m not sure she bugs me, really, but the vibe I get from some people is that she is doing something truly extraordinary and is a National Treasure. I can’t get with that.

  26. I’m on Team Terry. Sure she gets a little too inwardly focused during some of her interviews but she had a style that is unique in an industry that is sorely lacking in originality.

  27. 2000 Man

    C’mon, Tony. I’m a Stones fan. I have no problems with people being older and still being in rock n roll bands. That picture just creeps me out, okay?

  28. 2000 Man

    I like her, too. But like any interviewer, she’s only as good as her subject lets her be. I’m often surprised at how music nerdy she actually seems to be.

  29. tonyola

    I simply fail to understand how a posed pic of Nick Lowe in glasses can “creep you out” when you have wannabe Dorian Grays like this:

  30. Actually, looking at that Coverdale picture for awile, I now see what he’s up to – he’s auditioning to be the official Grateful Dead logo.

  31. Totally disagree with you re all your comments about autobiography. Little is more annoying than having somebody look at something you’ve created as if all it can tell anyone is what’s going on in your love life. “Great record! But enough about that: who are you screwing?”

    To say that everything one creates comes from somewhere in one’s life is to say exactly nothing. Of course it comes from somewhere in one’s life, because you have to have been alive to have made it. But that doesn’t make everything one creates nothing but an autobiography.

    In fact, even when somebody is doing something autobiographical, that work still has to be shaped creatively. The same principle of selection always applies; one has to choose what to present and how to present it.

  32. If you’re addressing me by “you,” I wasn’t suggesting that everything created is “nothing but an autobiography,” but that it helps when what is created has some personal investment – or aesthetic intent – behind it. Listen to the last 4 Nick Lowe albums and tell me if you don’t get the feeling that each one is progressively more an exercise in writing within a genre than the previous, with nothing new added to the genre. He’s gone from building cool furniture to cranking out cabinets. The songwriting and recordings are becoming so utilitarian, at this point, that I should be able to order them off the Ikea website. I don’t care who he’s screwing and only mildly care that he looks dopey in that posed picture someone objected to.

  33. I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying here, actually. I haven’t heard the most recent album though yet. Personal investment is essential–though it’s not the same as being autobiographical.

  34. jeangray

    I love his look in that photo, elder stateman of Rock, but jus’ can’t bring my self to listen to the new album. KingEd’s pretty much has it nailed. It’s like Lowe has just boxed himself into a very tight box & can’t figure a way out. What seemed so novel 15 years ago, is now just dead tired. And I imagine that he had a nothing to do with the cover art.

    My partner listened to it & exclaimed: “It’s terrible! It sounds like bad country music.” I guess that was enough for me.

    Taking the road less traveled, he did an episode of Darly Hall’s webshow a while back that was certainly off of the beaten path.

  35. KingEd and jeangray have nailed my thoughts about Lowe of late.

    I think a comparable artist might be Loudon Wainwright who writes extremely, at times painfully autobiographical songs that still convey some somewhat universal truths. He’s in a bit of a different box in that it’s difficult to write and also to listen to an album consisting entirely of such songs. His other tried and true go-to type of song is a topical one and these come with their own inherent difficulties.

    But in both types of songs Wainwright has a pretty good batting average.

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