If the new full-length Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe falls a little short of imposing the sensibility of Americana onto some excellent songs by one of the era's greatest tunesmiths and singers, that's not the fault of the songs or the artists. What Lowe Country makes clear is that Nick Lowe is a songwriter for the ages — from his Brinsley Schwarz work to his late-'70s rock-culture-specific records and his recent music, he's a craftsman in the league of Ray Davies or Guy Clark. What's missing from most of Lowe Country is the droll sensibility that informs Brinsley Schwarz's country-rock records, as well as Lowe's great Labour of Lust. Divorced from the rock 'n' roll culture that nurtured them, the tunes on Lowe Country sound fine, but maybe there should be more to it than that.
Born in Surrey, England, in 1949, Lowe first came to prominence in Brinsley Schwarz, a band that took their guitarist's name as their moniker. Playing a mixture of originals and covers of American soul and country tunes, Brinsley Schwarz became infamous for a legendary bit of hype — in 1970, the band was flown to New York for a show that was billed as the arrival of a major British band, but the trip became a disaster.
"I always think of that time with the Brinsleys — 'cause we all used to live together, we had a big house where we used to live — I always thought of it rather as doing some kind of apprenticeship," Lowe says from his London home. "We were all kind of learning stuff back then. We loved country music, and we were really doing our best to try and copy what we knew of it. We weren't good enough to do it properly — in a funny way, that's how other styles are born. You can be trying your best to do something, and it comes out a bit wonky, and hey, presto, you've invented another form of it."
Lowe's Brinsley Schwarz period is represented on Lowe Country by The Parson Red Heads' cover of the band's "Don't Lose Your Grip on Love," which appeared on 1972's Nervous on the Road. "Said he was a fire sign when last he came by / But fire sign or water sign, you can still hear him cry," the band sings. Like Brinsley Schwarz's Nervous on the Road and Silver Pistol, the song is tongue-in-cheek country rock. It's not particularly funny when The Parson Red Heads sing it, but it's gracefully performed.
"Humor just sort of creeps in," Lowe says of his songwriting. "I have to do my best to sort of stop it, really, because it's very easy sto slip over and become a bit irritating. I've always liked — well, not a sort of exactly funny delivery, you know, of a lyric, but I like it done in a way that even a sad song, you can put it across in a way where it's got humanity, a humanness. I always try to keep it simple — really, really simple. If you keep it simple, you can't really get too clever."
One of the highlights of Lowe Country is Nashville singer-songwriter Caitlin Rose's version of "Lately I've Let Things Slide," which she performs with blithe assurance. An account of how life can get away from you when you're feeling low, the song mentions cigarettes, a laundry bin and "untouched takeaway."
"I'm a fan of Caitlin," Lowe says. "I think she's great. My wife was in Nashville when I was there with Wilco, and we ran into a couple of guys from her band, and they'd just finished recording that tune."
Rose nails "Lately," while JEFF the Brotherhood contributes a strange version of "Marie Provost," Lowe's 1978 tale of a silent-movie actress who couldn't make the transition to sound, and becomes a meal for her "hungry little dachshund." Featuring what sounds like an Autoharp, the song rolls along on an off-kilter arrangement, and the track sounds detached — it's not funny.
Elsewhere, Canadian pop-rock singer Ron Sexsmith contributes an understated reading of "Where's My Everything?" As Sexsmith says, "Nick was the first one to do one of my songs, 'Secret Heart.' I always felt Nick had a great way with words, great sense of humor, and an intelligence that's missing in a lot of songwriting."
Erin Enderlin's soulful pass at "Lover Don't Go" and Griffin House's reading of "Cracking Up" both work fine, with House's arrangement mimicking the original Labour of Lust track. Lowe Country is an honorable effort that will serve as an introduction to a great figure. If the post-'60s, pre-punk rock cultural moment Lowe's best work documents is now long gone, at least we have the songs.