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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008

Nick Lowe

Jesus of Cool: 30th Anniversary Edition (Yep Roc)

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If there’s another album that gives such an impression of pop offhandedness yet holds up three decades later as a work of brilliance, I can’t think of it. For most listeners, Nick Lowe came onto the scene via his 1979 hit “Cruel to Be Kind” and Rockpile, the band he co-fronted with Dave Edmunds. But before that he was the primary songwriter/singer/bassist for Brinsley Schwarz, reigning champions of England’s rootsy pub rock scene. It’s a safe bet that over the course of the group’s half-dozen albums, Lowe learned a thing or two about making records. So when his buddies Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson started Stiff Records, they gave Nick the nod as house producer.

Mainly recorded on an 8-track machine with a revolving crew of pals from the local scene, Jesus of Cool was released in England in 1978 on Radar Records. But a number of the tunes preceded it as 7-inch singles, with “Heart of the City/So It Goes” being the inaugural Stiff release. Meanwhile, on these shores, Columbia Records slightly revamped the album and released it as Pure Pop For Now People. The amazing Yep Roc reissue collects all the tracks from both versions, plus a handful of bonus cuts.

Released at the height of punk rock, it is interesting to look in hindsight at how much of Lowe’s material is indebted to ’50s and ’60s music. The acoustic guitars and backing vocal oohs and ahhs of “Little Hitler,” “Tonight” and “Marie Provost” recall hits by the Everly Brothers and Phil Spector. To dub Lowe’s productions as Spect or- on-abudget wouldn’t be off the mark.

“No Reason” takes its drums and keyboard blueprint from vintage ska recordings and moves the usually upbeat sound into darker territory. There is often an odd lyrical twist or sound in Lowe’s tunes that keeps the listener’s ear open for what’s next. The sonic brilliance of “So It Goes” is ample evidence that Lowe didn’t need state-of-the-art facilities to craft a magnificent throwaway tune.