JESUS OF COOL - Nick Lowe (Yep Roc)
Maybe it was the doomed marriage to Carlene Carter, who once famously spoke of putting the “cunt into country.”  Those eyes, lips, and legs are more than enough to ruin any man and leave behind a quivering, drooling, mouth-breathing, protoplasmic pile of space junk.  The cover of "Musical Shapes" still makes my knees wobble.

One quick listen to any Nick Lowe album after, oh, “The Rose of England,” and it’s obvious that quality was no longer job one at Casa Lowe, the man formerly known as “Basher” more concerned with exposing his grey matter going up in flames, trying to live up to press accolades which had him hoodwinked into believing he was a serious singer/songwriter, and fleecing a loyal fan base with a series of dour, entirely forgettable albums like “Dig My Mood” and “The Convincer,” than writing a really good song.  You know, one with a pulse.  See also Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Joe Jackson.  [Fall all over yourself praising Costello from a mountaintop somewhere if you really must, but let’s face it: the post-“Almost Blue” section of his resume isn’t worth the plastic it’s pressed on.  Serves him right for ditching The Attractions.  “Imperial Bedroom”?  Feh.  But I digress…]

Thirty years ago, however, Lowe didn’t know any better, a snapshot in time exposing a pub fly content with crafting songs that twitched with the type of loose jangle and clever, warped wordplay the term “power pop” seemed invented for (if, uh, Pete Townshend hadn’t used it to refer to “I Can’t Explain” during an interview more than a decade earlier), lending a rough, ragged hand to the likes of Costello, The Damned, and The Pretenders as house producer at Stiff, and avoiding the curse of taking himself seriously.

Unfortunately, with “Jesus of Cool” and its mutant Stateside counterpart “Pure Pop for Now People,” he set the bar incredibly high right out of the blocks, unwittingly dooming himself to failure when trying to match (let alone surpass) it on subsequent releases.  “Labour of Lust” comes as close as anything in his catalog to repeating history, but falls just this (holds fingers about a half-inch apart) short.

As Lowe drolly observes in “I Love My Label,” “They always ask for lots of songs of no more than 2:50 long, so I write ‘em some,” and here Yep Roc rolls them out in waves, including all of the tracks from both versions of “Jesus of Cool” / “Pure Pop for Now People” and a raft of extras which actually put the “bone” into “bonus.”  The whole thing plays out like an opium dream you keep expecting to suddenly and cruelly end with a hard pinch.  This album languishing out of print for all those long years while the entire worthless Pavement and Genesis back catalogs received the remaster/bonus track treatment was not only an insult, but simply not right.

“Jesus of Cool” crackles and pops courtesy of some of the finest musos available in Blighty at the time, names familiar to anyone who’s ever squinted to read the liner notes on a plethora of Stiff releases, like various and sundry members of The Rumour, The Attractions, and the three guys who would eventually join Lowe in Rockpile (Billy Bremner, Dave Edmunds, and Terry Williams).  Nearly every song here would slot comfortably onto the track list of any Lowe career retrospective imaginable, but “Marie Provost” may just be the best thing he’s ever come up with and considering the roll he was on as the 70’s slinked into the 80’s with its tail between its legs, that’s really saying something.  By the time you realize you’re singing along to the sordid saga of a silent film star who was found dead along with evidence she'd been gnawed on by her weiner dog, it’s too late.  You’re toast.  

It’s nice to finally have “So It Goes” and “They Called It Rock,” both of which pound and swirl with a combination of bombast and rockabilly shuffle, together in one place as well as two versions of “Heart of the City” - live and studio - the bass line of which caused an sudden and entirely unexpected stampede of women bum rushing the St. Andrew’s Hall stage when Lowe played there way back when Jesus played fullback for Jerusalem.  The production and scope of “Little Hitler” recalls Phil Spector, “36 Inches High” sounds like the onset of a nervous breakdown, and “Nutted by Reality” is actually two songs in one; a funky samba intro welded to a galloping, sugary Lowe hook.

Elsewhere, things get a little stranger, but the results are no less engaging.  “Shake and Pop” is actually a slower, rhythmically-challenged pass at “They Called It Rock,” “Shake That Rat” sounds like drunken, land-locked surf music, Lowe doing his best Hank Marvin impression on bass, and the original version of future smash “Cruel to Be Kind” is set to a disco beat and features a straight-faced spoken interlude where Lowe complains “You know what, baby?  You’re so cruel.”  But even with the benefit of three decades of contemplation, I still can’t figure for the life of me if “Rollers Show” is heart-felt tribute or complete piss take.

The packaging here is top shelf as well; a glossy digipak that unfolds in four different directions to form a stained-glass cross upon which Lowe is crucified, still holding his trusty Fender Jazz, and a booklet packed with photos of Stiff and Radar memorabilia, album cover outtakes, and production notes.  My only beef is the availability of two bonus tracks – “Truth Drug” and “Keep It Out of Sight” - via download only.  Call me “self-serving,” but I couldn’t download a digital file if you put a gun to my head and believe me, I’ve tried.  The downloading that is, not the gun.  Hey Yep Roc!  Next time, why not just append them to the disc instead of using the offer to try to sell your back catalog? - Clark Paull