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Lloyd Cole

+ {Lloyd Cole And The Commotions}

Always a contention for argument around the pubs and clubs into why an Englishman should receive numerous accolades in polls as a top “Scottish” act, LLOYD COLE (born 31st January 1961, Buxton in Derbyshire) is indeed an honorary Scot, having served his musical apprenticeship at Glasgow University studying philosophy and English, while forming the foundations of Caledonian cruisers, The Commotions. From wry, sophisti-pop group hits, `Perfect Skin’ and `Forest Fire’, to venerable solo star with a penchant for off-the-cuff electro-noodling (his work in 2013 with CLUSTER man Hans-Joachim Roedelius an example), cool COLE, is, by anybody’s “Standards” (the title of a second set that year!), an artist with a long and distinguished CV.
It was in the summer of ’83 when the singer-songwriter/guitarist, along with keyboardist Blair Cowan formed LLOYD COLE AND THE COMMOTIONS, roping in fellow students, Neil Clark (guitar), Stephen Irvine (drums) and Lawrence Donegan (bass) to try their hand in the burgeoning post-Postcard pop market; only the latter musician – son of skiffle legend LONNIE DONEGAN – had previous experience as a member of Scots popsters, The BLUEBELLS.
Within months they’d signed on the dotted line at Polydor Records, while fellow student support around the city’s toilet circuit of venues, helped boost sales of their classic debut single, `Perfect Skin’, wherein it cracked the Top 30 the following spring. Although not as immediate or as fruitful as their inaugural hit, `Forest Fire’ paved the way for the quintet’s seminal, Paul Hardiman-produced debut set, RATTLESNAKES (1984) {*8}. Treading the thin line between brainy bard and pretentious poseur, COLE had the critics fawning over his subtle and sophisticated retro-pop. The man scored extra points for the intellectual ruminations and name-dropping (of Eve Marie Saint and Simone de Beauvoir) into the lyrics of the title track, while the jangly `Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?’ (soon-to-be a comeback hit for chanteuse SANDIE SHAW) did similar for Norman Mahler and LOVE’s Arthur Lee. COLE’s languorous croon a model of detached cool inevitably drawing comparisons with LOU REED, the record was an auspicious start to their career, and sold well enough to guarantee a Top 20 place at a time when The SMITHS were indie kingpins.
More readily endearing, `Brand New Friend’’s lilting pop melancholy was characteristic of the general mood on the Langer-Winstanley-produced Top 5 sophomore set, EASY PIECES (1985) {*7}, although the blackly humorous `Lost Weekend’ upped the tempo and provided the band with a second Top 20 hit. By this point, COLE and his Commotions, had graduated from being the darlings of the college circuit to achieve considerable crossover success and the future looked bright, even if `Cut Me Down’ only scraped into the Top 40.
Containing a few hits in the wordy-rappinghood of `My Bag’ and the fragile `Jennifer She Said’, third set – this time produced by Ian Stanley – MAINSTREAM (1987) {*5}, sounded lacklustre in comparison, only `Sean Penn Blues’ (described by Lloyd as “Mr. Madonna”) partly recovering the sly wit of old. After a further flop EP (`From The Hip’) and a relatively successful swansong “best of” compilation, the band went their separate ways.
Inevitably, LLOYD COLE embarked on a solo career (having married American Elizabeth Lewis), taking Cowan, and relocating to New York, where he recruited ex-LOU REED players, Robert Quine and Fred Maher; solo artist MATTHEW SWEET played bass. The resulting album, LLOYD COLE (1990) {*5} achieved a respectable, near Top 10 chart placing but a muted critical reception, despite some genuinely evocative moments such as minor hits, `No Blue Skies’ and `Don’t Look Back’.
Subsequent sets, the decidedly buoyant DON’T GET WEIRD ON ME BABE (1991) {*7} and the 60s-styled BAD VIBES (1993) {*5}, rather unfairly met a similar critical fate. While the latter, Adam Peters-produced album – his first for Fontana Records – was for the most part gimmicky, vitriol and sardonic for anyone outside Old Blighty to “get” (example `So You’d Like To Save The World’ and `Holier Than Thou’), the former record took a darker-edged approach after the FM-friendly `She’s A Girl And I’m A Man’ run its groovy course. Known for his multi-faceted orchestrations (think back to ELTON JOHN, BOWIE and THIRD EAR BAND), arranger/conductor Paul Buckmaster took charge of the final half of the set from `Butterfly’ to `What He Doesn’t Know’.
1995’s LOVE STORY {*6}, on the other hand, saw something of a folkier pop-rock comeback, the classy single `Like Lovers Do’, COLE’s biggest hit in years, proving that a midnight shadow and artful lyrics still had a place in the pop jungle. Sounding like AL STEWART in his heyday on the likes of `I Didn’t Know That You Cared’, JOHN LENNON on `Be There’ or DEL AMITRI on `Love Ruins Everything’, it was easy to pigeonhole Lloyd among the sentimental AOR that littered the market.
After an extended period of legal hassles with Mercury/Fontana, the singer emerged with a new band, Lloyd Cole & The Negatives: namely “I Kissed A Girl” star JILL SOBULE (guitar/ vocals), EVE’S PLUM’s Michael Kotch (guitar), The DAMBUILDERS’ Dave Derby (bass/guitar/vocals) and Rafa Maciejak (drums). An eponymous post-millennial album, THE NEGATIVES (2001) {*6} was released on French-based indie label, XIII Bis. While the song(s), by and large, remained the same, highlights such as `Past Imperfect’ (a suitably askance view of his 80s heyday) suggested the ageing intellectual wasn’t quite ready to don his dad-rock slippers.
All of which made the release of PLASTIC WOOD (2001) {*7} perhaps a little less surprising than it might’ve been. For the first time in his career, COLE abandoned the rock format, confounding expectations with a whole album’s worth of ambient electronica. While he resisted singing, he couldn’t quite give up his acoustic strumming or his penchant for winsome melody, factors which only served to enhance the music’s enchanting ebb and flow. While Lloyd was no APHEX TWIN or ENO, the texture of several of the pieces were simply tidy and neat.
In complete contrast, ETC. (2001), released around the same time, gathered together odds and sods from the vaults. More familiar territory then, but of an unexpectedly high quality for cutting room floor material. Sympathetic covers of Karen Black’s `Memphis’ and DYLAN’s `You’re A Big Girl Now’, hinted at an as yet untapped talent for interpretation.
2003’s MUSIC IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE {*7} kept up the momentum, if that’s not too strong a word for a record so fragile and reflective; ex-Commotions man Neil Clark was back as guitarist. A cover of NICK CAVE’s `People Ain’t No Good’ spoke volumes of COLE’s creative trajectory: he certainly had more in common now with old Nick than he ever did in the 80s – from a songwriting point of view at least. COLE duly eased himself into the role of world- weary, wisely-cynical yet lovelorn balladeer as seemingly inevitably as CAVE had done so. Yet while the Australian star still rocked out on occasion, COLE kept it constantly low-key, ruminating on life as only a man of his pedigree could.
Over the years, COLE had covered a plethora of work, including `Glory’ (TELEVISION), `Mystery Train’ (ELVIS PRESLEY), `I Don’t Believe You’ + `If You Gotta Go, Go Now’ (BOB DYLAN), `Children Of The Revolution’ + `Mystic Lady’ + `The Slider’ + `Romany Soup’ (T. REX), `Vicious’ (LOU REED), etc., while Scottish outfit CAMERA OBSCURA paid homage to the man by delivering the song, `Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken’, in 2006.
Maintaining a liaison with Sanctuary Records (One Little Indian, in the States), umpteenth set ANTIDEPRESSANT (2006) {*7} was as close to MORRISSEY or Justin Currie than one could imagine. A changing world had meant that singles were now secondary to album artists such as the literate COLE, but in the reflective `Woman In A Bar’, `I Am Not Willing’ and `NYC Sunshine’, maybe the guy should’ve been allowed to turn the clock back a few decades.
Scaling back the workload for family life, and now on the German independent Tapete Records, the long-awaited BROKEN RECORD (2010) {*7} was again biting at the heels of a music industry probably aware that in a recession-torn global market, ageing gents such as COLE were talented but not talented enough to bring in the big bucks. Augmented in a Manhattan studio by old buddy Blair Cowan (keyboards), Fred Maher (drums) and guitarists Matt Cullen and Mark Schwaber, the worthy wordsmith embellished his confessional COHEN-meets-country courtesy of `Westchester County Jail’, `Rhinestones’, `Writer’s Retreat’ and the autumnal `Oh Genevieve’.
2013 was some year for COLE as he undertook the release of two sets, one partnering the aforementioned ROEDELIUS: SELECTED STUDIES VOL.1 {*6}, which recalled the avant-ambient nature of “Plastic Wood” (think Debussy meets ENO), the other a solo affair funded in part by the man’s loyal legion of fans: STANDARDS {*8}. Conventional and strictly by-the-book rock/pop-centric, 50-something COLE was inspired by DYLAN’s recent “Tempest” treasure. With usual suspect backing from Cullen, Schwaber, Cowan, Maher, MATTHEW SWEET, etc., many pundits have cited this VU-meets-TELEVISION record as one of his best since his debut of nearly three decades ago. Opening with JOHN HARTFORD’s `California Earthquake’, the proverbial cherry-picker had a hard time deciphering the best on show, but with time in hand, `Myrtle And Rose’, `Opposites Day’ (The STROKES, anyone?), `Period Piece’ and `No Truck’, who knows what’ll turn out to be the most poignant.
Following on from another set of recent recordings he compiled for ROEDELIUS (`Kollektion 02: Electronic Music)’, LLOYD COLE, himself, was back in the studio for 2015’s 1D ELECTRONICS 2012-2014 {*6}; imported from Bureau B Records in Germany. A million miles away from his halcyon “Commotions” days, only the former singer’s use of synths and knobs played its part here; the lengthier finale gloops, `The Bund’, `Slight Orchestra’ and `Strands’, had their moments without really getting out of reverse gear.
Peeling away the layers of “imperfect” skin that had marked out his music career of late, the self-deprecating “complicated motherfucker” (as in track `Night Sweats’), LLOYD COLE compromised for once on 2019’s ponderous GUESSWORK {*7} album. The keyboard/synth-enhanced record was a worthy step back in time; and in former Commotions conspirators Blair Cowan and Neil Clark (plus Fred Maher), he’d an alliance with the past, whilst taking several steps sideways into the future via the “Radio Gaga”/PET SHOP BOYS-esque `Violins’, the lounge/exotica `When I Came Down From The Mountain’, and the spine-tingling krautrock cut, `Moments And Whatnot’.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/MCS/BG // rev-up MCS Dec2013-Jul2019

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