Monday, September 29, 2008

Commotions-less Cole Under No Blue Skies

Following his split from the Commotions, singer/ songwriter Lloyd Cole decided a fresh start was in order all round, which led him to move to New York (not unlike a certain former Beatle had done almost two decades previous). Though Cole would never approach the commercial and critical heights of John Lennon, the next decade would see him continue to develop as an creative force. His eponymous debut solo album was produced by Lou Reed’s drummer Fred Maher, and featured among its players Robert Quine (ex-Voidoid) on guitar, singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet (see future post) on bass, along with contributions from former Commotions Neil Clarke and Blair Cowan. The lead out single in early 1990 was the hauntingly beautiful ‘No Blue Skies’ (which I bought on vinyl 45 at the time), the song again falling short of the commercial recognition in so richly deserved (UK#42/OZ#92). The song ‘Downtown’ scored Lloyd Cole a rare hit in the U.S., albeit on the genre based Modern Rock Track chart. ‘Don’t Look Back’ (UK#59) was the only other song hit on the mainstream charts from the ‘Lloyd Cole’ set, which fell just shy of giving Cole another top 10 album at home (UK#11/OZ#43). What the album proved was that Lloyd Cole had lost none of the wry, sardonic wit that had so effectively informed his earlier work with the Commotions, and his musicianship had reached a new level of emotional synchronicity to match.

Cole’s follow up effort was 1991’s ‘Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe’, which was a curious mix of half rock based songs and half lush string-laden ballads, very Burt Bacharach in style/arrangement. Though it continued Cole’s solid chart performance in the U.K. (#21), the U.S. once again remained a hard market to crack. The only single to chart from the album was ‘She’s A Girl And I’m A Man’ (UK#55). The lack of a commercial breakthrough, particularly Stateside, led to Capitol dropping Cole from their roster during 1992, whilst in the U.K. he switched to the Fontana label. His first album for Fontana was 1993’s ‘Bad Vibes’, and perhaps Cole’s edgiest work to date, incorporating elements of grunge style rock and electronica with psychedelic tones. It proved also to be his most inaccessible in terms of his fan base, only reaching #38 in Britain, and yielding the minor hit single ‘So You’d Like To Save The World’ (UK#72). The album was eventually released in the U.S. during 1994 on the independent Rykodisc label.

Cole then returned to his roots somewhat for his 1995 album ‘Love Story’ (UK#27). The album was a more bare bones acoustic-folk sound, and was produced by Stephen Street (who had recently worked with Blur). It proved a welcome return to form for Cole, and yielded his biggest hit in almost a decade with ‘Like Lovers Do’ (UK#24), a collaboration with former Commotions’ guitarist Neil Clark. Two more minor hits were also featured, in ‘Sentimental Fool’ (UK#73) and ‘Baby’ (UK#121).

Cole was then one of the artists listed as collateral damage following Universal Music’s buy out of Polygram, leaving him without a recording contract. That hadn’t stopped Polygram from having issued a collection of Cole’s best work both with the Commotions and as a solo artist, with 1998’s ‘The Collection’ (UK#24 - the CD that I purchased as a long overdue acquisition). Apparently Cole had a couple of albums worth of material already in the can when Universal pulled the plug, initially consigning the songs to a studio vault (in 2001 the independent One Indian label issued a collection of these songs as ‘2001 - A Collected Recordings By Lloyd Cole’ and ‘Etc.’, which was a collection of studio outtakes).

After a couple of years in the musical wilderness, Cole formed a New York based band called The Negatives, which featured Jill Sobule, Dave Derby, Mike Kotch and Rafa Maciejak in the line-up. The Negatives released one self titled album in 2000, which aside from a mainstream release in France, remained fairly inaccessible in most other markets. During 2003 Lloyd Cole recorded the album ‘Music In A Foreign Language’ (UK#114), with a largely stripped down folk-rock style. Cole recorded most of the album in his home studio and had to rely again on independent labels to distribute it.

Lloyd Cole reformed the Commotions in 2004 to perform a 20th anniversary tour of the U.K., the rediscovered magic captured on the album ‘Live At The Apollo, London’. Following the tour Lloyd resumed his solo career with the 2006 album ‘Antidepressant’ (UK#156), again recorded in his home studio with Cole covering most of the playing, with a little help from friends Jill Sobule and Dave Derby, and Commotions’ cohort Neil Clark. The album reflected a mature songwriter, in command of his craft and boasting the lyrical expertise to convey some very honest and insightful observations on life issues. Cole is still a regular live performer, though these days he opts for a more intimate setting, playing a lot of one man acoustic shows, with many of his songs adapted to simpler folk style arrangements, but delivered by a consummate storyteller.

It’s a genuine puzzlement that Lloyd Cole, both with the Commotions and as a solo act, never managed to crack the British top 10, Australian top 40, or the U.S. top 100 with a hit single. There were certainly no shortage of quality candidates, but regardless Cole proved himself a key and influential figure in the British ‘indie’ rock scene of the 80s. The Lloyd Cole and the Commotions’ album ‘Rattlesnakes’ was included in the N.M.E. (New Musical Express) list of top 100 albums of all time, and the title track has been covered by Commotions’ devotees Tori Amos and Manic Street Preachers.

Lloyd Cole is apparently an avid golfer, often scheduling his concert tours in locations with easily accessible golf courses. To borrow some golfing parlance, Lloyd Cole may not have hit too many holes in one on the charts, but he’s a true ‘tour pro’ with a song writing/performance game to match some of the best in the business (just ask the Swedish, who constitute one of Cole’s biggest fan bases).

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