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O.C. Pop Music Review : Lowe Takes Flight

February 28, 1995|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Although no one ever mistook his gentlemanly English manner for that of a poohn ker, Nick Lowe was indisputably a part of rock's spirited New Wave revival (and part of a regional phenomenon that came to be known as pub-rock before that). He did acquire the nickname "The Basher" somewhere along the way, and his sense of humor in song is notoriously nonpareil.

There is evidence of all these youthful traits in Lowe's new album, "The Impossible Bird," but mostly it's lovely cause for considerable surprise. The accomplished quipster keeps his laconic cheek largely in check, and the rockabilly swagger is dominated by songs that are exquisite, sober . . . hushed, even. There've always been moments of supreme tenderness and nuggets of Solomonic wisdom buried amid his more joking and bashing numbers, but here he allows them to come to the forefront. Stark raving maturity wears well on him.

At the Coach House on Sunday night, Lowe--playing with a four-piece backup band he's dubbed (surprise) the Impossible Birds--had the task of integrating some of this more delicate material, such as the achingly fragile "Lover Don't Go" and "Trail of Tears," into a set that would inevitably have to climax with such bashers as "Cruel to Be Kind" (the finest Top 20 single ever based on a line of Shakespeare) and "I Knew the Bride."

Lowe's strategy toward bridging this chasm often seemed to be no strategy: Much of the time he simply alternated his sweatier songs with the most gentle ballads, counting on the strength of the writing and delivery in the weepers to immediately calm a crowd after the scorchers. With Lowe doing some of his best singing ever--and keeping the bar noise to a near-pindrop minimum--on nuance-filled heartbreakers like "Shelley My Love," this was a risk well-taken.

*

Fans looking for Lowe to replicate the rockabilly glories of the Rockpile days might have wished for more sustained heads of steam. But the benefit of mixing in Lowe's new, more directly emotional material is that it brings out the latent emotion buried under the surface wit and razz of the older, more indirect rockers.

And there are new songs that perfectly balance his wisened and wise-guy sides--from the opening "12-Step Program (To Quit You Babe)," which borrows the recovery parlance to follow in the tradition of rock's great counting songs, to the poppy but despairing "Where Is My Everything," about as good a midlife crisis anthem as has been written lately ("Where are the children, 2.3 / That were meant to be sent to me / The patter of whose tiny feet / Would make my life so sweet").

Lowe's band here, happily, duplicated the recording's lineup and sound. Though guitars set the tone, specially noteworthy as a persistent undercurrent was Geraint Watkins' persistent organ, which gets away from the Farfisa sound former Lowe sideman Paul Carrack once favored to something even more traditional. From the low, heart-tugging hum on ballads like "Lover Don't Go" to a solo sounding delightfully like a shopping-mall keyboard-store demonstration in "Soulful Wind," Watkins put the soulful salt behind the chug in Lowe's country-folk shuffles. (He even added a touch of Mardi Gras with some accordion near the close.)

*

It may not be strictly coincidental that "The Impossible Bird" is Lowe's finest album in 17 years and his first for an independent label. ironically, Warner Bros. dropped him just as he was reaching a new, renewed stride, which could be one reason the album--on Upstart Records--is as uncompromisingly accomplished as it is. May the mounting royalties from "Peace, Love and Understanding" (retrieved from Curtis Stigers as the evening's inevitable closer) finance many more indie efforts--and rare U.S. tours--like this one.

*

The support act on Lowe's tour is longtime local country favorite Jim Lauderdale, who recently released his second major-label effort, "Pretty Close to the Truth." The straightforward George Jones mannerisms of his debut album have given way to a swinging style more inflected with R&B and early rock touches, and as a result Lauderdale's performances are looser and more engaging now--even if the material was more solidly in-the-pocket back when he was still trying to be a New Traditionalist.

Opening at this show only was local singer (and birthday girl) Gina Quartaro, whose mixture of sass and country classicism was promisingly enjoyable, if not quite entirely there yet.

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