The Velvet Underground and Nico
Jake and the Rest of the Jewels, A Lick and a Promise. Dave Van Ronk may always be the Mayor of MacDougal Street, but when it comes to the deputy mayor position, there can be no other candidate than Jake Jacobs. No one epitomizes in gracious splendor the wonders of Greenwich Village more than Jacobs. In the mid-'60s, right alongside the Lovin' Spoonful and, yes, Bob Dylan, he was the leader of the Magicians. Jacobs' folk-rock band barely got out of the starting gate before he split with Bunky Skinner to form Bunky & Jake. Talk about stretching the boundaries of folk music, those two recorded a pair of albums that were a veritable blueprint for the future.
Next up was Jake and the Family Jewels, a Village band that married so many different styles together the word "eclectic" doesn't begin to cover their groovy sound. Not to mention that Jake Jacobs knew his way around the gritty edges of the streets and wrote with the sardonic beauty of a survivor. Their two albums had songs like "I Remember Cissy's Baby" and "Sunshine Joe" that have never been beat for conjuring up cobblestone ghosts and subway toasts. That both have yet to make it to compact disc remains a crime against human nature.
Now, almost 40 years to the day since Jake Jacobs' last album comes A Lick and a Promise. It feels like the completion of a big question mark that would not be answered: where was this musician? The set shows the singer-songwriter has not lost an iota of wondrous appeal. His songs float like divine arrivals from the ozone, wrapped in a voice that is absolutely impossible not to fall for on first listen. For someone who never quite made it to second base but is up there with New York City's finest like Lou Reed, John Sebastian and Paul Simon, Jacobs now rounds third heading for home, carrying with him a satchel of songs and a joyous noise. He gives power to the thought that it's never too late to open up the windows and let your love light shine. Whether he's singing about his youthful frolics, the rigors of urban life, friends who never came back or even Dusty Springfield, there is life on earth in every word. So on Bleecker, Bank, MacDougal or any of the other alluring narrow streets of Greenwich Village, know there's a spirit roaming free watching out for us all. Jake Jacobs has got enough songs to make the day and night glow, and believe it or not sounds like he's just getting started. He should be made a New York landmark like Central Park and Washington Square, and best of all, he's still right there.
Various Artists, Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe. A strong case could be made that Nick Lowe is the greatest living songwriter. Sure, there would be plenty of disagreement and cases to be made for other artists to fill that bill, but for the sake of argument let Lowe have the benefit of the doubt. Consider the Englishman helped kick start the second British Invasion in the mid-'70s with a cellar full of great bands and heartstopping songs. By the time he threw in full-time with Rockpile and contributed a half-dozen classics to their one and only, albeit perfect, album Seconds of Pleasure, the man really could do no wrong. It's been pretty much like that ever since.
For Lowe Country, executive producers Rob Seidenberg and Gary Burnette found a wide range of Americana artists who lean heavily toward the country side of the picket fence to take their choice of Nick Lowe originals and, hopefully, make them their own. Each artist succeeds admirably, with several soaring to surprising results. Some of the highlights include Caitlin Rose's drop-dead rendition of "Lately I've Let Things Slide," a more recent Lowe gem, followed shortly by Robert Ellis's Music City take on "All Men Are Liars" that would have Nick Lowe's former father-in-law, country crooner Carl Smith, smiling from above. From there is such a collection of riches it's no wonder that Lowe singlehandedly has created his own blend of roots and deep soul that actually grows better every year.
There are very few singers who are able to take a stage with only a guitar and paint the world a variety of different colors. That's what Nick Lowe does every time he performs. A collection like this gives everyone a chance to hear all his talent in a bright new light when done by others, but also reminds us what a treasure still lives in our midst. At the end of the album Canadian Ron Sexsmith totally nails "Where's My Everything," sending chills out for anyone who has ever pondered what happened to them in this life, which is pretty much everyone. It brings to mind a question from one of the Brit's early stunners, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" where he asks, "So where are the strong and who are the trusted?" The answer, of course, is that Nick Lowe is right here, taking us into music's future with a smile, a tear and, most of all, a heart of gold.
The Velvet Underground & Nico, 45th Anniversary Remaster. Very few albums have been reissued so many times, with extra tracks, improved sound or even just new photos and liner notes. But after it's all said and sung, this is probably the only album that deserves such devotion, because it really did change the way we hear rock and roll. Lou Reed's lyrics were born in the pages of writers like Raymond Chandler and Delmore Schwartz, inspiring so much that would come after. And as a band, Reed, along with John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker, erased the rock rule book for good, and played music that wasn't always easy to hear but was always impossible to forget. In the process they spawned several genres that still show vital signs of life and no sign of slowing down.
The 11 songs on the band's 1967 debut album sound as revelatory as ever. Whether this remastered release really adds anything new is best left to the audiophiles, but for music lovers it's another chance to be reminded what the first shot of the revolution sounded like. Slightly grating guitar chords and a droning viola are driven by elemental Africanesque percussion and snarling lead lines, all anchored by Reed's seductive voice juxtaposed with German chanteuse Nico guesting just enough to make listeners wonder. "Heroin" might have kicked down the doors of perception in the album bins about life in the big city , but "Sunday Morning" was the sound of silence waking up. Youth culture would never be the same.
The Velvet Underground & Nico came out a few months before Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but they may as well have been a decade apart. In some ways, the Beatles' music took rock down a dead-end street that ended in excess and theatrical exploitation. The Velvets, on the other hand, opened the way for reality in all its glory to invade the practice rooms of musicians everywhere, giving them the freedom of expression wherever it took them. On "Heroin" Reed sings the refrain "I guess that I just don't know" like it's a declaration of independence, as the Velvet Underground busy themselves creating the soundtrack of our future. Sterling Morrison so succinctly said it best many years ago: "In the long run we were right."