Apr 052024

Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.

Labour of Love

I’m on a bit of a Nick Lowe bender at present, provoked by a question I was asked around how many versions there are of the timeless glory of (“What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding.” (A: 70, as a bare minimum, and counting.) And no, here on this page, surely I don’t have to explain that isn’t him covering Elvis Costello, do I? Take it from us.

Lowe has had a curious career, currently riding the wave of celebrated elder statesman, something that, at one time, seemed inconceivable. Indeed, pub-rock was never deigned or designed to build legendary status, being more about a rowdy night out, three-minute songs and sticky carpets. For pub-rock is where he emerged first, that early ’70s response to the prevailing mood of the music of the day, then all sprawling epics, awash with endless lookatme solos and preening prima donna frontmen, more in touch with their accountants than their audience. Pub rock was fun and uplifting, by people that looked like you, for people that looked like you, a good time, recycling the best of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country and soul. Solos were for sissies and the chorus was king.

Brinsley Schwarz, the band, had a shaky start fifty-four years ago today, but they picked themselves up and dusted themselves down. Songs and haircuts shortened, they joined a joyous circuit of largely London pubs, along with Dr. Feelgood, Ducks Deluxe, Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and many more. Predating punk by a year or three, the enthusiasm and excitement was the same, if garbed with a touch more experience and age. Nick Lowe was bassist, lead singer and main songwriter for Brinsley Schwarz, and they made a good run for themselves before splitting. Schwarz, the guitarist who gave his name to the name of the group, hooked up with Graham Parker and was the linchpin of his band, The Rumour, whilst Lowe joined forces with Welsh retro-rock guitar man Dave Edmunds to form Rockpile.

The Rockpile years saw a stellar uplift in Lowe’s writing. Whilst his influences remained obvious, his magpie tendencies with a melody were less overt, and the run of records, whilst short, was wonderful. (Rockpile, the band, only really made one record, but Edmunds and Lowe’s solo albums were Rockpile records in everything but name, as was, arguably, Musical Shapes, an album by Lowe’s then-wife Carlene Carter.) As that band subsided, so Lowe advanced on a solo career, with more acclaim than sales.

The story goes that, down on his luck and thinking of jacking it all in, plop, a letter arrived in his mailbox. Unbeknownst to him, a cover of “Peace, Love and Understanding” had been picked up for a film. Curtis Stigers, in case you didn’t know.) And when that film is The Bodyguard, with Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner, a massive worldwide hit, with the soundtrack album going likewise global, the royalties on that one song were rather more than just an unexpected bonus, effectively paving the way for his career to continue.

Since then, Lowe has continued to ply his idiosyncratic path, with almost deliberately unfashionable songs of self-deprecation and sly humor, allied to melodies culled from musical styles seldom at any cutting edge, becoming a UK national treasure. His production work, with early Elvis Costello and the Pretenders, has also planted a reputation for a sound yet simple approach, where the melody is master, the surroundings there merely to reflect the song rather than to divert attention elsewhere. Content to follow his own muse, he is as likely to play live in a solo setting, just his voice and an acoustic guitar, rattling through his “hits,” as to turn up with oddball Tex-Mex rockabilly renegades Los Straitjackets, who have become an unofficially regular backing group for him.

Labour of Love is one of at least three Lowe tributes, there having been also Lowe Profile, featuring the likes of Dave Alvin and old Brinsley’s bandmate, Ian Gomm, and Lowe Country, with Amanda Shires, Ron Sexsmith and Chatham County Line, amongst others. I could have featured any of the trio, but collectively, I think this tops the other two. Curated by L.A. power popper Walter Clevenger, himself in thrall to the styles embraced by Lowe, and to the singer himself, this 2001 double disc captures most of Lowe’s moods and re-presents them in the hands of his peers, the affection often palpably obvious.

It is Dar Williams who leads off Labour of Love with “All Men Are Liars,” the witheringly accurate/tongue in cheek (delete as necessary) putdown of the male species and their labours with love. Williams, not herself unknown in having a sharp lyrical turn, is the perfect witness, delivering the song with no ironies unintended. Her ever-so-matter-of-fact delivery glides the song along, accompanying herself with a cooing background chorale, with erstwhile Dylan and Hall & Oates sidesman G.E. Smith adding some delightfully skittish guitar. As a well-received complement, it is Graham Parker who now offers a Cajun-flavored “Rose of England,” with mandolin and accordion from T Bone Wolk, still standing from the last track. It paints both singer and author in a good light.

Tom Petty, whilst a prolific coverer of songs, seldom appeared on tribute albums, so it is quite a coup to have him here, even if his “Cracking Up” is a little too derivative of the Rockpile-helmed original. This time, without the album house band, it is the Heartbreakers behind him. Any sense of letdown is soon lifted by the superb pairing of Sleepy LaBeef and C.J. Chenier. This is for “Half a Boy and Half a Man,” and again demonstrates the ease with which Lowe translates into Louisiana. LaBeef’s rumble and Chenier’s swirling box make up for what, in less accomplished hands, might become just a chuggy slice of generica. Smith and Wolk provide the backing, along with Steve Holley’s drums, he the other core of the studio team here.

Another basement growl, from Greg Brown, provides the vocal for “Where’s My Everything,” stripped back to voice and a pair of guitars, which diverts the project from any sense of sameness. It is, however, a slighter song. Marshall Crenshaw is next, broadly playing Marshall Crenshaw, for the first of two appearances, for a doo-woppy echo heavy “Television,” which is as much as you need to know.

“Shting Shtang” may not be amongst Lowe’s greatest moments, but Joe Clay gives it a polish beyond many people might deign to offer. I’ll go further: for a style of song I don’t normally like, I love it! It is increasingly apparent that, with LaBeef and Clay, and many more to come, this album is populated by many of the lesser-known and lesser-sung heroes of a land where rock and roll and country had a baby and named it rockabilly. I guess this is a sign how genuine they found the intent of this lanky songsmith from over the pond.

The bluesy r’n’b moan of Andrea Re transforms “When I Write the Book” into a distinctly Muscle Shoals vibe, Wolk now channeling Spooner Oldham on Wurlitzer. The whole project goes a palpable notch higher, belying the central placing on the disc. It’s marvelous, and the Rockpile version seems a distant memory. Then Crenshaw returns for an overly faithful ersatz mimeograph of “Cruel To Be Kind,” however much Smith tries to insert some neat licks. He trades vocals with Christine Ohlman, aka the “Beehive Queen,” there more because she can be, I feel, rather than to add any extra wallop. (At the risk of ageism, I did cop a smile when wiki cited her date of birth as “citation needed”!)

Thankfully it isn’t straight back down any further notches, as harp master Charlie Musselwhite picks up “Faithless Lover” by its fading tux, and gives it a Presley-esque sheen. He adds his exemplary blowing between the verses, as Smith, Wolk and Holley give it a twangy platform of fading grandeur on which to parade the whole. Glorious. As is the version of “Soulful Wind,” a veritable juke joint extravaganza, by Guy Davis, another legend tangible with the past Lowe so routinely raided for his ideas. Davis honks on his own harmonica, which may have given Musselwhite some real sense of competition. And who is that on mandolin? Only blimmin’ Levon Helm!

Someone, clearly, has to cover “(What’s so Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” that possibly short straw going to yet another legacy mainstay and mainbrace, Mr. Joe Louis Walker. I say “short straw” only from the sense of the song being so damned ubiquitous, and apart from giving it an essentially pleasant bluesy swagger, there is little else he can actually do. Sure it’s OK, but isn’t one of the few remarkable renditions of this much-covered song.

Frankly, I’d have ended Labour of Love there, as the last track seems altogether amiss and out of place. Yes, you could argue that Elvis Costello has more right than most to be granted a place here, but, rather than pride of place, it is with the disappointment of “Egypt” that he finishes off the album. The production, all shimmer and echo, is fine, his vocals likewise, if drawn from his full-on “songs from the shows” warble he was then adopting. Maybe the choice of song is the main culprit here. It maybe the oldest song here, originally a Brinsley Schwarz song from Silver Pistol, and, listening again to the original, it is infinitely preferable to this version. Giving it the benefit of the doubt, maybe it was a fault to give Costello a free hand, and to have paired him with the house band might have made it that much more simpatico with the rest of the album.

Despite those parting comments, overall Labour of Love is a worthy album, and a fond reciprocation to Nick Lowe of his value, by a parade of Lowe’s elders and influences. Costello may have been the magnet to the intended marketplace, along with Petty, but it is the older folk that do it, and him, most proud.

Labour of Love tracklisting:

1. Dar Williams – All Men Are Liars (Nick Lowe cover)
2. Graham Parker – The Rose Of England (Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit cover)
3. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Cracking Up (Nick Lowe cover)
4. Sleepy LaBeef & C.J. Chenier – Half A Boy And Half A Man (Nick Lowe & His Cowboy Outfit cover)
5. Greg Brown – Where’s My Everything (Nick Lowe cover)
6. Marshall Crenshaw – Television (Dave Edmunds cover)
7. Joe Clay – Shting Shtang (Nick Lowe cover)
8. Andrea Re – When I Write The Book (Phil Seymour cover)
9. Marshall Crenshaw & Christine Ohlman – Cruel To Be Kind (Brinsley Schwarz cover)
10. Charlie Musselwhite – Faithless Lover (Nick Lowe cover)
11. Guy Davis – Soulful Wind (Nick Lowe cover)
12. Joe Louis Walker – (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding (Brinsley Schwarz cover)
13. Elvis Costello – Egypt (Brinsley Schwarz cover)

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