Lloyd Cole

Insert pretentious literary allusion of your choice here

They called music that wasn't hair metal or one-hit wonder synth-pop "college rock" back in the '80s, because only college radio stations were free from the shackles of corporate control and could actually play music that they wanted to, not music decided by a gaggle of middle-management record biz executives. So the music of highschool dropouts like the Replacements and the Meat Puppets got labeled "college rock". Lloyd Cole, though, defines college rock in a different, narrower sense - that is, he sounds like what he is, an undergraduate liberal arts major, and doesn't try to hide it. Now that last bit is important, because a long rock tradition is to act dumber than your education, epitomized by street fightin' London Economics grad and nice middle class boy Mick Jagger, and many others. Some might accuse Cole of being pretentious by dropping the names of books he's read and films he's seen at the drop of a couplet, but I say he's just being honest. In his own way, Cole is actually acting less pretentious than Iggy Pop (another smart guy who fakes stupidity), because he's not pretending to be some illiterate working class hero he's not.

All of this would be academic (pardon pun) if Cole didn't have the tunes to back up his words, and for the most part he does. His original backing band, the Commotions, were a pleasantly understated folk-pop combo that provided a warm bed for Cole's evocative poetic lyrics, which owe a lot to the usual suspects - Dylan, Reed, Costello, but perhaps most especially Leonard Cohen. Like Cohen, Cole pens introspective mood pieces concerning personal relationships from a somewhat detached viewpoint, and can uncannily zero in on the subtle nuances of women -- but unlike Cohen, Cole can write tunes and sing, and he's generally more upbeat in his worldview (not to mention sprightly in his pop music). The dandyish English major who fancies himself a ladies' man isn't the everyday pose of pop stars, but it's Cole's, and there's certainly room for more of his type in rock, methinks. Of course he's never written poetry as moving and powerful as "She was a fast machine/She kept the motor clean/She was the best damn woman that I ever seen," but hey, how could he beat that?

There isn't a whole lot of Cole presence on the web, being the cult artist he is, but this Lloyd Cole Homepage is a nice little place to stop and visit. I'm sure you're dying to look at the list of all the allusions he's made in his various songs (shorter than I thought -- heck, the guy seems to make film references in every other line!).

Rattlesnakes (1984) ****

A rich, deep album that just gets deeper and richer every time I listen to it, Cole's first effort is as, most first efforts are, his freshest, and not so coincidentally his best. He'd try to recapture the mixture of literate charm and naivette with more forced results on later albums, but here Cole comes off as the Everyundergrad - he can't stop chattering about all these films he's seen and books he's read, and fumbles for poetry to describe the perfect skin of the girl down the hall of his four-story apartment building. "She's got cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin/And she's sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan," - bingo. Promising strong talent as a singer as well as lyricist, the backing band the Commotions (who would back him on his first three albums) serve up a more than servicable jangly backdrop, alternately lush and spare, rarely rocking but a suitably subtle counterpoint to Cole's intelligent wordsmithery. The crux of loving this album is whether lines like "She looks like Eva Marie Saint/In On the Waterfront/She reads Simone de Beauvoir/In her American Circumstance," swoon you over - to me, it's about time someone wrote rock'n'roll songs about such subjects. I mean, I've gone to college, 90% of the people reading this review have or will in the future, and we've all read a few books and seen a few flicks, haven't we? And Cole's certainly smarter and subtler than Jackson Browne (not to mention much more exciting and catchier with his pop-rock), dropping the right names at all the right places (Norman Mailer and Arthur Lee). He's the type of bloke who meets his girl over a New York Times crossword puzzle spelling "audaciously" and builds a chorus around a reference to Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim. These days another highly literate Scottish act, Belle and Sebastian, carry the torch for this type of jangly pop that isn't afraid to show its brains. A sparkling, underlooked little gem - few have sung the "academia blues," as Cole puts it, better.

Easy Pieces (1985) ***1/2

Almost a carbon copy of the debut - the only musical advances are somewhat ill-fitting soul horns on the opener, "Rich" - and fans of the first album will find this one as welcome as an old friend returning for the weekend. The mood is more richly melancholy than the debut and the material is ever-so-slightly weaker overall, but "Lost Weekend," is Cole's catchiest uptempo pop-rocker yet - how could I not love a pop song that refers to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts and contains the plea, "Are you laughing at me now?/May I please laugh along with you?" Perhaps my favorite, though, is "Why I Love Country Music," (answer: because it goes good with Spanish wine and a bad relationship). The divorce story of "Rich," is worthy of John Cheever, but it ends with the affirmation "Baby you're a rich man," (I trust you don't need me to tell what allusion that is to). The song that hits me the closest to home is "Grace," another of Cole's masterful thumbnail sketches of individual women, in which the heroine struggles with turning 28 - at 23 she could take on the world, but now she spits the gutter out. I know this sounds silly, but suddenly realizing in your mid-20s that you are growing older is a heartbreaking experience. The album title is a reference to the classic Jack Nicholson vehicle, Five Easy Pieces, naturally.

Mainstream (1987)

Supposedly a letdown after the first two albums; except for the poignant "Jennifer She Said," the four songs I've heard from this album are rather lackluster, reinforcing those claims. Contains "Sean Penn Blues," which shows that Cole hasn't lost his sense of humor.

Reader Comments

Dale Sparks, sparky@boutiquewinesaz.com

I don't have the album any more and haven't heard in ten years, but I recall 'Mainstream' as a decent album (***?). Didn't he also have a work called 'Everybody Lovers the Pilot'? It's all just a vague blur...........

The Best of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions 1984-1989 ***1/2(1989)

As the title indicates, this covers the three albums Cole recorded with the Commotions. Two unexceptional B-sides are primed as bait for fans, and the track selection (4 songs from each album) is decent. There's always room to quibble with collections like this (where's "Why I Love Country Music"?) and while this might seem like a decent sampler of Cole's music, in truth either one of the first two albums is just as strong song for song. Start with the debut first, not this.

Lloyd Cole (1990)

Ditching the Commotions and moving to America, Cole is joined by a team of New York old pros - Robert Quine, Fred Maher (ex-Voidoids/Lou Reed), Matthew Sweet, Blair Cowan.

Don't Get Weird On Me, Babe (1991)

Nice title, and I think Lloyd made it up himself (that is, it's not a reference). The same Quine/Cowan/Maher/Sweet band forms backup on this disc as well.

Bad Vibes (1993) **1/2

Indeed. Except for Matthew Sweet, Cole's New York backup band doesn't rejoin him on this disc, which while well-crafted, isn't terribly inviting. Cole's in a bad mood and wants everyone to know it, penning sarcastic little pieces that lack the buoyancy of his early work. In the first song the protagonist is mourning his life (to pun with morning), and in the second he's mocking environmentalist do-gooders, "So You'd Like To Save The World," - Lloyd sings "You might call it ultraviolet radiation/It's only sunlight," which may be clever, but also a bit lacking in much of a point. The low point of the record is "Wild Mushrooms," based on Cole's admission the movie Something Wild, but while there's nothing truly horrid about almost anything else on the record, and Cole still has his way with a lyric, there's nothing that's truly catchy or memorable. And I hope that "Mr. Wrong" (a fine song, actually) isn't a reference to the abysmal Ellen DeGeneres flick - come on, Lloyd, isn't it time to start taking in a few better movies down at the local VCR rental shop? Cole reveals another side of himself by closing the album with "4MB", a tribute to Marc Bolan. Not a truly bad album, just a dull and uninvolving one.

Love Story (1995)

Predates Al Gore's appropriation of the Eric Segal novel by two full years.

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Don't get literary on me, babe...