[Editor’s Note: I just checked, and it was November 24, 2005 when I got an e-mail from Ken saying “If you ever want someone to do a guest Idiot’s Guide to: The Smiths, R.E.M. or Lloyd Cole, I’m your guy.” He later went on to cover the Smiths for Jefitoblog — and co-authored the Lemonheads guide last year — but the Lloyd Cole guide has been our personal equivalent of the Anselmo case for many moons. Until now, that is.
Lloyd Cole has been releasing albums for damn near 25 years, and you probably haven’t heard any of them — which makes him a perfect Popdose Guides artist. Ken’s done a fine job of making a case for Cole, so sit back, open your ears, and enjoy!]
This is one of the most impressive debut albums to come out of the UK in the 1980s. Whilst American lyricists told us about Jack & Diane and girls who just want to have fun, Lloyd Cole was coolly namedropping obscure, intellectual icons. Eva Marie Saint, Simone de Beauvoir, and Norman Mailer all make completely unnecessary, yet evocative appearances in the lyrics. The album deftly captures the naive voice of an affected 20-something — but in a way that’s charming instead of pretentious. Surely even the most jaded would like to be taken ‘back to a basement flat’ by someone who asks how to spell ‘audaciously’ (“Charlotte Street” [download]) and Mr. Cole subtly reminds us of the appeal of a trashy whirlwind romance (“Forest Fire”).
While Lloyd’s witty lyrics are at the forefront, it would be a mistake to overlook The Commotions. Guitarist Neil Clark manages to pull off the best one-note guitar solo this side of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” (“Perfect Skin”) and supports Cole’s vocals throughout. Drummer Steven Irvine keeps the rhythm taut and Blair Cowan’s expressive keyboard work adds nice color, especially the accordion (“Are You Ready to be Heartbroken”). Finally, producer Paul Hardiman augments the record with tasteful strings in all the right places, giving each song a dramatic flair that’s reminiscent of being young and jaunty. It’s a brilliant record — and that it’s a debut makes it all the more impressive. This is a great place to start with LC&C, but be sure to have Wikipedia at hand to catch all the cultural nuances.
The Commotions, which started out in Glasgow as a larger soul band, were pared down before making their debut, but the soulful elements return on the terrific sophomore album, Easy Pieces. Their roots are most evident in “Brand New Friend,” which builds slowly from a drum machine to an accordion, vocals and eventually the whole band, complete with horns and soulful backing vocals. Horns also drench the first cut, “Rich.” Some of the lyrics get downright dour towards the end, with a suicide attempt in “Minor Character” (download). The jangly “Grace” (download) would’ve fit in nicely on Rattlesnakes, but sounds just as good here. The album closer, “Perfect Blue,” rounds out the minor-key second side with a forlorn harmonica part and a subtle warning that he tends to spread melancholy. It sounds trite, but it’s a great album for a rainy Sunday morning with a cuppa tea and big stack o’ newspapers…
Cole’s third album kicks off with the coked-up “My Bag” (download) serving us whiskey, gin, mushrooms, Pirelli Calendar girls, and a sly request to “meet me in the john, John.” (In a nod to the anti-drug 1980s, in the video for the song, the line “powder my nose” is whitewashed into “launder my clothes”!) “Sean Penn Blues” (download) invokes the ’80s “natural no good” and “Mr. Madonna,” yet his plight is given a sympathetic treatment here. “Jennifer She Said” explores the perils of inking your lover’s name on your arm well before your average accountant had a tat on his forearm. And in “From the Hip,” Lloyd tries to rationalize his bad behavior as “it never got whipped out of me.” Despite some memorable tracks, this is probably the slightest album the Commotions put out, made sadder by the fact that it was the last record of new material they would ever release.
After the release of Mainstream, the band broke up, but put together this compilation which takes four songs from each of the three studio records and adds two rarities for completists. One of those songs, “You Will Never Be No Good” (download), appeared on an import version of Rattlesnakes, so there’s really only one unreleased track here — “Her Last Fling” which sounds like a Lloyd Cole impersonator. There’s also a slightly different version of “Perfect Blue.” So, while this is an unnecessary collection for fans who own the three studio records, it is a great introduction to the band.
Following the dissolution of the Commotions, Cole relocated to New York and began work on his solo debut. As good as the Commotions were, Cole put together a NYC studio musician dream team of sorts, featuring drummer/producer Fred Maher (Lou Reed), ex-Voidoid Robert Quine on guitar, and the then relatively unknown Matthew Sweet on bass. Former Commotion keyboardist Blair Cowan returned to the fold as well, but the result was a bit more rock-oriented than Cole’s previous band. Maher’s fluid drumming instills this record with urgency, and Quine’s slinky guitar leads weave nicely with Cole’s own less-flashy playing. Sweet shines on bass and Cole returned the favor a year later and played guitar on Sweet’s breakthrough Girlfriend.
It would stand to reason that moving to New York would make an impact on Cole’s songwriting, and this record is infused with nice slices of the city in the lyrics. “It’s raining on Bleeker Street” is but one example (from “What Do You Know About Love?”). The most obvious example of Cole’s ‘rock’ side coming out on this record is the bitter kiss-off “Sweetheart” (download), which kicks into gear with a rollicking Maher drum intro. It is without a doubt the hardest song in Cole’s catalogue to date. There are some great midtempo songs in here too. The lead track, “Don’t Look Back,” manages to both reference Dylan in its title and acknowledge the aging process explored in “29” (from Mainstream). “Downtown” explores the pre-Giuliani, seedier side of NYC, but stood in well for Los Angeles in the Rob Lowe/James Spader movie Bad Influence. While Cole has always dealt in rich character studies, “Undressed” (download) may be his most direct and sweetest song yet. It’s simply about a man’s enjoyment in seeing his lover, um, undressed.
Bonus: Here’s “Witching Hour” (download), the rare original bonus track from the “No Blue Skies” CD single.
With his first solo album a moderate commercial and critical success, solo album number two is a dramatic change in style and scope. The first side employs the same stunning band as the last album (Maher, Sweet, Quine, Cowan) with solid results (example: “Tell Your Sister” [download]). Lloyd even managed a minor hit in “She’s A Girl and I’m a Man,” which features a riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jackson Browne record, and played the song on a few of the late-night talk shows of the era (including Dennis Miller — remember that?). “Weeping Wine” posits a common lament: “If every lover you’d ever known/Could turn around would you take one?”
While Side One (remember album ‘sides’?) is every bit as good as the material on his first solo record, Side Two has some of the best songs Cole has ever written. He employs the same band here, but also adds lush orchestration by Paul Buckmaster (Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Harry Nilsson) which presaged the whole orch-pop movement by a good five years. Songs like “Half of Everything,” about the discovery and aftermath of a tryst; “Margo’s Waltz,” a sprightly, beautiful 3/4 time number; and “Butterfly” (download) (complete with a great tympani part) all absolutely sparkle with the full orchestral backing. This album is the pinnacle of Lloyd’s post-Commotions career.
Bonus: Here’s “Children of the Revolution” (download), the rare cover bonus track from the UK CD single for “She’s a Girl, I’m a Man.”
While certainly not a failure, this album doesn’t match up to his previous efforts. “Too Much of a Good Thing” (download), a double-tracked, breathy vocal with sparse electronic instrumentation, is the strongest of the lot, but “Morning Is Broken” (download) and “So You’d Like to Save the World” are also keepers. Where the rich orchestral side of Don’t Get Weird was downright comfy, some of the electronic textures here are somewhat cold. Getting his feet wet with electronica on this album would pay dividends later on, so it was necessary step in his evolution as a songwriter, even if some of the experimentation didn’t quite hit the mark yet.
Bonus: Here’s “4 M.B.” (download), a bonus track on the “So You’d Like to Save the World” double CD single. (M.B. is ostensibly Marc Bolan.)
Two years after the slight misstep of Bad Vibes, Cole returned with the more self-assured Love Story. After abstaining from Vibes, Robert Quine is back for this one — as is the magic. This album is warm (“Sentimental Fool” [download]), if a bit maudlin in spots (well, it is a Lloyd Cole record) and infused with strings on many of the songs. “Like Lovers Do” (download) is one of those songs that come so easily to Lloyd: a seamless melody, richly detailed lyrics, and an instantly memorable chorus. In an alternate universe, it’s a big hit single; in this one, it’s just another superbly crafted song few have heard. Album closer “For Crying Out Loud” recalls the Commotions track “Perfect Blue” and even has a similar harmonica part.
After twelve solo years (albeit with a constant group of musicians), Cole assembled his first band since the Commotions for this release. Called the Negatives, the lineup included singer/songwriter Jill Sobule (“I Kissed A Girl”) and ex-Dambuilder Dave Derby. While the Negatives are a quintet on the cover, some of Cole’s old pals pop in on the recordings as well. “Tried to Rock” addresses his earlier work and, appropriately, doesn’t rock at all. “Man on the Verge” (download) shimmers and also refers to a “9/11 subway train” which is kinda eerie, since the album came out in November 2000. A bunch of great tracks (including “Impossible Girl” [download]), however, demonstrate that even though he was nearly twenty years into his career at this point, he hadn’t lost a step in the songwriting department.
At that hallowed twenty-year mark, a box set would’ve been a good plan but with a few existing compilations that nicely encapsulate both the Commotions and Cole’s solo work, a different sort of box set was in order. The immaculate packaging aside, this is really just two albums worth of new material. Disc One is the Negatives album of 2000 and Disc Four is the Negatives performing live, spanning Cole’s entire career. The latter disc is marred by lousy sound quality; I’ve heard cassette board mixes that sound better than this.
The two ‘new’ discs are both keepers, but are complete stylistic opposites. Plastic Wood expands the electronic textures Cole explored on Bad Vibes, proving that if he ever lost his voice — literally or figuratively — Lloyd could segue into film scoring with ease, as this collection seems to be just that, instrumental musical pieces that score tiny non-existent films. Very little of this record sounds like anything he’s ever done before, which is impressive. Try “Dry Ice” (download), “Manhattan Chase” (download), and the title track (download).
Etc. is just that, an odds & sods collection with some nice shorter songs (like “Old Enough to Know Better” (download)) and, in “You’re a Big Girl Now” (download), a Dylan cover (finally). All of these discs can be bought separately, so maybe skip the live disc and the Negatives album (which you may already have) and just get Plastic Wood and Etc. and save a few quid, though the whole package is fancy and tempting for completists.
The sparse instrumentation and almost complete lack of percussion on Language is dictated by the material, as the character detail on these songs would’ve been lost under the sheen of previous efforts. “My Other Life” (download) revisits the first-person narrative of “Half of Everything” but ups the ante; where “Half” dealt with infidelity, “My Other Life” posits the narrator in the midst of a murder investigation. “Cutting Out” (download) smartly encapsulates the awkward dispatches from the road, the disconnect between the ostensibly glamorous road life with the longing and resentment from those left at home paying Visa bills and fielding distracted phone calls at 3 AM. Where B-sides and live bootlegs from Lloyd’s Commotions and solo career demonstrate a wealth of well-chosen covers, Lloyd eschewed covers on proper records to this point. Lloyd’s first call to the songwriter’s bullpen is a nice reading of Nick Cave’s “People Ain’t No Good.” Lest anyone think Lloyd’s aged too much, drugs pop up in “Late Night, Early Town,” and the good ones can be found in “Brazil,” or so we’re told.
Hey, the drums are back! Welcome back, drums. Kicking off with the throwback “The Young Idealists” (download) — which could be a sonic companion piece to “Man on the Verge” from The Negatives — the pace and vibe of Antidepressant is decidedly more upbeat than Music in a Foreign Language. As happens with so many aging musicians that aren’t Keith Richards, the fun, illicit drugs give way to the M.D. & PPO-approved ones. Goodbye cocaine, hello Adderall. No more weed, Ambien works better. While Lloyd’s antidepressants seem to have taken effect, check his pulse, because even Scarlet Johansson doesn’t do anything for him (“Woman in a Bar”). Ask your doctor about the little blue pill, Lloyd.
The electronic textures first explored on Bad Vibes and fully fleshed out on Plastic Wood make a few cameos here, most notably in “I Didn’t See It Coming” and “Rolodex Incident.” Lloyd even makes light of his often saturnine subject matter in “Everysong” (download) with the line “can’t cry every song.” The drugs do work. Let’s hope they don’t take all the sadness away, though, because a truly happy Lloyd just wouldn’t be right.