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A History of Alternative Music One Album at a Time: 1977-2001: Album 2-25: “Jesus of Cool” by Nick Lowe (1978)

"Jesus of Cool" by Nick Lowe

Didn’t know much of anything about Nick Lowe going in. I knew he was a mentor to Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Graham Parsons, a leading figure of Power Pop and New Wave and he who gave us the song “Cruel to Be Kind.” Beyond that, I get him confused with Nick Cave about 7 times out of 8.

“Jesus of Cool” is Mr. Lowe (not Mr. Cave’s) debut album, 21 tracks strong. Every song is a complete idea, almost horologically well built. Mr. Cave was coming up on 30 when this album came out so we cannot extol him as a prodigy but rather someone who worked at and worked at it again, until he had something he thought was not only right but different.

The “different” is that most of this record is attitude–sly, winking, conspiratorial, joking. All of this was in pretty short supply at this time where you if you fashioned yourself a singer/songwriter AND wanted to be funny, you either had to come from a folk tradition (see Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Lehrer) or be the ringmaster and main attraction of a traveling circus (see David Bowie and Alice Cooper), a guy with a guitar or a guy at the center of a spectacle (women are rarely allowed to be funny in music. Which is gross, plain and simple). Perhaps Nick Lowe’s greatest achievement was the middle ground, a wit, even one as dry as pavement at high noon, without a bunch of theatrics or politics for ballast. Just funny for funny’s sake. 

The problem is that Nick Lowe, at least at this very early stage of being NICK LOWE was funny all the time and emotionally tuned in for about half that. Too much of the opening of this record is clever instead of present as if Mr. Lowe thought we wouldn’t get the joke if he let his band actually play instead of hold back. And despite the mission statement here, this is exactly the wrong place to put the airless hip stuff. It makes you want to quit on the record before it’s even really begun. 

Don’t though. By “Shake and Pop” (Track #4), Lowe finds it. Songs rock out almost like metal numbers and at least one is a blues durge as guttural as a Leadbelly cut. All are completely self-assured without being cocky and unwilling to commit, emotionally speaking. By Track #4 Nick Lowe is acting like an adult musician with a bratty sense of humor instead of a clever brat with fake detachment from his own creation.

At 21 songs, the back half of the record is erratic. He doesn’t make the cute-rather-than-true mistake again but not every song can be “Cruel to Be Kind” or the dopey glee  of “Rollers Show”  (about yes, going to a Bay City Rollers concert) and the slow boil feminist anger of “Born a Woman.” 

I am sure Nick Lowe grew and matured. He’s in his early 7os now and 15 albums into a career. But really it strikes me that his greatest influence will be his descendants, Costello and Jackson and the list of musicians they influence we could reel off until we passed out from lack of oxygen.

Would I try more Nick Lowe? Sure. Despite what I just said, I already like him more than Elvis Costello and as much as Joe Jackson. In the case of Joe Jackson, that’s quite a bit.


“Cruel to Be Kind”
“Nutted by Reality”
“Halfway to Paradise”
“Roller Show


“Music for Money”
“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”
“Little Hitler”

Up Next: “The Specials” by “The Specials” 


A History of Alternative Music One Album at a Time: 1977-2001: Album 1-25: “Fear of Music” by Talking Heads

Fear of Music by The Talking Heads

Some Context:

I’ve chosen/solicited from friends the records for this project because I have no personal expertise with any of them and see this as an empty shelf of my own musical knowledge I’d like to fill. I don’t have a good explanation why this is. It just means for every record we look at here, there will be some long glance of inscrutability over what I didn’t know coming in. Born in 1973 with Nevermind dropping the first week of my freshman year of college, I am exactly of the right age to be proud member of the “Our Band Could Be Your Life” generation and for these records to be the formative sonic moments of my youth. And for some reason they just weren’t.

Some would become that later. Like much later, like owning property, years-in-the-workforce later. I’ve left those artists (The Cure, Depeche Mode) pretty much out of this project as I know their work pretty well.

In we go then with only what I hear and learn in the present. I’ve no memories or nostalgia. My only context is now. And with that….

I really liked “Fear of Music” (1977) the third studio album by Talking Heads and the only one I had never heard before. I was a “Remain-in-Light” and forward Talking Heads admirer up until this point. Of course I knew what “Psycho Killer” and any other jam of theirs that appears in the Stop Making Sense movie were. But my time with the band’s eight studio albums was back-heavy. Talking Heads as already-famous critical darlings knocking on the gates of the mainstream I knew. Talking Heads as a CBGBs mainstay achieving escape velocity? No.

Imagine my delight then when FOM kicks off the with Afrofunk/beat poetry mashup of “I Zimbra” (the lyrics are apparently nonsense on purpose) and basically holds this grove the whole record. Some songs are more feeling than substance (Side 2 can feel like enough material for 2 songs that producer Brian Eno and band stretched into 5). But consistent with a feeling I often get from learning about music from the African-diaspora, there’s a commitment to a groove, to pleasure even when the song aims to be deadly serious.

The best example is, of course, the immortal “Life During Wartime” a futuristic jab of cynicism of an America drunk on its own SOMA of consumerism and violence which still manages to be great fun to dance to. The jerky-yet-unfailing enthusiasm of David Byrne’s voice and the willingness to place Chris Franz’s percussion higher and louder in the mix keeps much of this album between the hips as well as the ears.

I’d gladly purchase this on vinyl (I am only in for two of the bands eight records on wax at present) while passing on the 33 1/3 book about it (Jonathan Letham was an asshole to me at a book festival many years ago and I’ve never forgiven him for it) but might need an argument from wiser minds  on if I need the later records like “Naked.”



“I Zimbra”


“Life During Wartime”







 Up next ” “Jesus of Cool” by Nick Lowe.


How to: Not Get Stuck (Musically Speaking)

I’ve been getting a ton out of a recent article about why people in their 30s (and above) give up on discovering new music.

Has this happened to you? If so, 1) I am sorry and 2) I’d like to help.

I may not be smarter than you. But I do know discovering new music is not as hard as you think.

Step 1: “Define New”

“New to everyone” does not mean “New to you.” If you really wanna know what are the world’s 100 most popular songs at the moment and that’s what you mean by “discovering new music” or “keeping up” or whatever, that’s easy to find.

Listen to a playlist of this nature every Monday, take note of songs you like and the artists responsible for them. Repeat next Monday. You don’t need me for that

If that’s not what you seek then…

Step 2: Chose your Fork (in the road)

Are you…?

(This Way): Looking for new versions of what you already like (i.e I am still listening to DC punk from 10th grade and now my niece is in the 10th grade. What’s happened in that area of music since?)


(That Way): Looking for something completely new (I.e. I am tired of most of what I listened to before and am seeking a fresh start).

You can chose both. For now, it’s easier to pick one because the next step is the hardest.

Step 3: Say What You Like. (In nouns. Not editorials)

This part is hard.

Nobody teaches us how to describe music literally so when we try we usually fall back on the way it makes us feel (“I like music for when I am happy or depressed or contemplating the life cycle of a sunflower”) or on silly genre categories radio programmers made up decades ago. Genres are helpful in a very basic way (there is certainly a musical difference between “New Orleans Jazz” and “Israeli Heavy Metal”) but if you try to describe your music preferences with them, you will inevitably end up in pointless this-not-that hair splitting or on how a genre make you look cool in the 8th grade (“I’m a rock guy, not a raver”) and the point here is whom you are (musically speaking) in the present


Listen to 10 of your favorite songs of all in a row and write down what you hear.

Not what you think or feel or the memory associated with them. Just what you hear. Meaning…

Is it loud or soft, melodic or dissonant? What is the song’s most prominent element? Do you like that the song is over quickly or seems to go on forever?

Now look at what you’ve written down.

How do these adjectives and nouns make you feel? Under what circumstances can you imagine wanting to feel this way?

Now write out one sentence.

“My favorite songs make me feel X by doing Y.”

Keep this sentence right next to you as we proceed to…

Step 4: Learn


Every recording artist ever has a profile on All Music. Every one of those profiles has a “Related” tab which indicates who inspired that artist and who they inspired. Because any musician worth anything had their own favorite music and later generations of musicians they shaped.

Here’s the “Related” tab for a little-known underground artist named Beyonce’.

Wherein it says Ms. Beyonce was influenced by artists like Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Madonna and Donna Summer. And influenced such artists as Adele, Zandaya, Chloe and Sam Smith.

Now let’s say Beyonce was one of the artists on your list of 10 favorite songs, the list from which you developed that all important sentence we spoke of a moment ago.

“My favorite songs make me feel X by doing Y.”

Armed with your sentence…

Step 5: Dig.

Ms. Beyonce has seven studio albums so I will assume if her work is a favorite of yours, you’ve listened to all of them backwards and forwards, right? You don’t have to love them all but you are being dishonest if on the one hand, you speak openly about how much you love an artist’s music and on the other, only know their hits. That’s like only visit your best friend on their birthday.

Start there. Any artist you love deserves your complete attention. Do your homework and go through the complete works.

Make a list of your favorite songs by that artist and compare them to your sentence.

“My favorite songs make me feel X by doing Y.”

Chances are there is a pretty good match between your list of songs and that sentence.

If the two do not match…

Step 6: Fail, Succeed, say why

Why don’t they? Do you only like Beyonce’ on a sunny day? Do you only like the music she wrote in her 20s? There’s no good or bad reason. But you ned to be able to articulate the reason because that’s what we’re getting at here. You can always discover new music if you can say in clear plain English what you hear and what you like or don’t like about it.

What are you hearing you don’t like? Not feeling, not associating, what are you ACTUALLY HEARING that you don’t like just like step 3. Is it…

“I don’t like songs with drum solos” (Correct)

“I don’t like songs like remind me of my ex-girlfriend” (Incorrect. That’s an association not what you are actually hearing)

Compare this to your sentence then ask for more of what you seek…

For example…

“I’d like some Beyonce’ but with horns”

Then tell everyone in sight you’d like some Beyonce’ with horns.

Step 7: Try again. Ask for help.

No grades, no failing. It’s called “discovery” for a reason


Fishbone Listen Through: Album 7 of 7: “Still Stuck in the Throat” (2007)

Produced by: John Norwood Fisher (the band’s bassist)

Released: April 24, 2007


This is Fishbone’s party record. It whirls, dip-dives, then bum rushes the garage door and spills out on the street under a pulsing moon. We could argue that all Fishbone records are party records (despite also being genre experiments, satire and social commentary) just as all John Waters movies are black comedies despite doing a lot of other things too. But Still Stuck is their purest example of a record you throw on not to get the night going but to keep it at its peak.

Why does it feel so perfectly Fishbone to throw out your best party record in your 40s rather than late teens? Maybe because a band made up equally of manic energy, pinpoint musicianship and innovative spirit plagued by terrible career choices could only do it this way: The sweatiest, danciest record of their career comes at the moment in life when limbs start to hurt and we consider going to bed before the joint gets jumping.

12 songs. The opener “Jackass Brigade” donkey-kicks you out of your chair (horse noises on the backing track and all) then scrambles to a summit almost immediately. Tracks 3-7— “Skank’n Go Nutz” to “The Devil made him do It” are a high wind of furious funk and mighty horns. Stop moving and the songs might exhale you right over a twisted ankle. The album then catches its breath for just a sec, whirls about and kicks out the garage door with “Premadawnutt” in position number 10. By the moment of the final track, a damn funny song called “Date Rape” about a sexual felon getting his just desserts, you’re already on the sidewalk gasping for air. You’d chuckle if you had any lung left for it.

Still Stuck in the Throat is both a play on Fishbone’s name and the fact that, although they only recorded about once a decade now and only Angelo Moore (lead singer) and John Norwood Fisher (bass) remained from the original lineup, Fishbone never stopped touring the world, playing together and in support their friends. More than that, I like how the title of this album describes both the pain and joy of being a Fishbone fan: These artists sabotaged their own career more than once and had a bad habit of valuing funny over good. These are forgivable errors when compared to the sheer chops, verve and boundless drive to challenge themselves they showed as players and the far more successful bands (No Doubt, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus) that looked up to them. And these errors would have cost less, I have to believe, had Fishbone been a band full of handsome white people.

Still Stuck in our Throat is where they should be. As a reminder that great bands don’t always make great choices or have great luck. In a perfect world, that shouldn’t matter. The genius of their music should be our reminder, persistent, even annoying, they count too. The phrase “brought the funk to the punk” is overused when describing Fishbone’s influence. But can you really apply it, with anything like a full heart, to anyone else?

Is it time for the Fishbone biopic to get them back into the conversation? How about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination? Cuz I’d be down for both.





Fishbone Listen Through: Album 6 of 7: “The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx”

Album 6 of 7: The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx

Review: Fishbone’s greatest Side 1 at a point in their career when the world told them to give up. 

Recorded at The Village (Los Angeles)

Produced by Steve Lindsey

Released: March 21, 2000


Here’s the sad part: For their 6th studio album and their first in nearly 5 years, Fishbone had a brand new deal with Disney’s Hollywood Records in place, the album fucking went nowhere and their new label dropped them immediately. Happy part: The album got great reviews and deserved them. Nearly 20 years into their tenure as a band and at least double that in bad luck and self-destructive tendencies, Fishbone’s best qualities are all up front here: humor, versatility, staying power and bottomless good will: How many bands whose previous two albums tanked, get their heroes (George Clinton), peers (Bad Brains) and admirers (No Doubt, The Red Hot Chili Peppers) to show up and guest star? How many bands take that good will and opportunity then make one of their best records after the universe has told them repeatedly to give up?

The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx (Fishbone’s album titles get progressively worse. If you own more than one, I suggest color coding or nicknames so you don’t have to remember them) feels grounded in this world and not a phantasm of their own making. Not only will you recognize their bench of guest talent (forgot to mention Ric James and Pink Floyd’s backing vocalists are here too) but Nuttwerx opens with a cover of the Temptations’s “Shakey Ground” and peaks on track 4 with Sly Stone’s “Everybody is a Star,” the first time Fishbone has cited their own inspirations so directly. Reviews praised the bands return to form as ska and reggae-inspired performers but what I hear as much of is the dark bluesy humor of Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito and New Orleans’s Hurray for the Riff Raff: Songs as mordant as they are funny and feel as though the hour is late rather than the party is peaking. As much of this record sits a chair with an eyebrow raised as it spins off its axle into space.

Since you’d basically have to press it yourself to find this record on vinyl, I’m gonna suggest downloading the first side then the last song, “Karma Tsunami.” The second side feels a bit slack and forgettable so perhaps a good time to zone out before the album comes back and smacks you one last time. And if you like records by Chaka Khan and The Pointer Sisters, futuristic yet grounded in at least three African-American musical traditions, “Nuttwerx” is produced by Steve Lindsey who trained at the right-shoulder of Richard Perry, the man behind the boards of Sisters Pointer and Mother Khan and their sonic influence echoes all up and down the channels of this Nuttwerz. So it’s got that going for it as well.


Fishbone Listen Through: Album 5 of 7: “Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge”

Album 5 of 7: Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge

Review: Download tacks 2, 6, 7 and 11. 

Recorded at: Indigo Ranch Studios, Malibu, CA.

Produced by Dallas Austin and Fishbone

Released: 1996


We have arrived at Fishbone’s “Angry at The Music Industry” record, a decades-old blueprint for albums but a serviceable one. This is the cliche that, at its best, produces Pink Floyd’s Wish you Were Here, Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses and Prince’s Emancipation. On the other end, bargain versions of what a band actually does well : Nirvana’s “Rape Me” feels like the leftovers from “Francis Farmer Will Have its Revenge on Seattle” and “EMI” by the Sex Pistols resembles the seventh single you release from a hit album when you’ve already bleed the rest of it dry.

How then to give to the music industry right between the eyes while sounding like yourself not a spoiled child version of yourself? How to not let your fury be the only thing that matters and the only thing we hear? The answer might be, but probably isn’t, an album about bodily fluids and flaccid dangly parts.

The story so far:  Fishbone’s 4th album Give a Monkey a Brain tanked while the band was also going through a ton of personnel turnover and resulted on Sony Music dropping the band entirely. Would this have happened if Fishbone had been say, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom they mentored and inspired? No. But anyway…

Chim Chim happened in partnership with producer Dallas Austin (who wrote the majority of the songs on Boyz II Men’s debut album) whose label Rowdy Records had a distribution deal with Arista. Apparently this is a “concept album” (I don’t hear this at all) about the monkey spoken of on the previous record coming for galactic vengeance. All racial overtones of a black bands seeing themselves as avenging monkeys present and accounted for and Austin is on record as saying he wanted to make Fishbone’s heaviest record yet.

He didn’t do that. Instead, I’d say he created Fishbone’s funniest and whiplashiest record yet.

Of course it’s hilarious (Fishbone could do hilarious with an album of room tone). It’s also part of a great LA black humor tradition that blends genre fiction, afro-futurism and doing-the-dozens smackdowns (Fishbone’s records are the siblings of the novels of Walter Mosley and Paul Beatty and the full enterprise of Tyler the Creator). But c’mon now: We’re 5 albums and nearly 20 years in. And Fishbone decided that their power slam of the music industry that treated them like field hands is…a record about beer guts and taking a shit?

Unsurprisingly, “Chim Chim’s” best songs are not “Beer Gut” or “In the Cube” (slang for the restroom) but tracks that avoid this dumb idea entirely. The slap-backslap of “Psychologically Overcast” (Track 6, featuring Busta Rhymes) and “Alcoholic” (Track 7 about lead singer Angelo Moore) is as fierce as a hungry lioness. The title track sets us listeners is a heavy metal jam with a funk bass and marching band percussion that is actually more fun then that sounds on its face. The interlude monologues remind us, repeatedly, what can be great about hip-hop album interstitial sketches and I’ve even got love for “Monkey Dick” at track 11, which is essentially a ska-jam about a sexually frustrated zoo animal.

But c’mon now. 4 more songs about dicks and butts after that? Most of them over 7 minutes long?  Bearing your teeth at an industry that did you dirty with an album of pit humor? This is high school band shit and not on Fishbone’s level. Not at this point. Maybe not ever. And really not funny, the greatest crime of all.

You don’t need to own this one. You need to download tracks 2,6,7 and 11 and remind yourself that Fishbone’s real revenge was being great before anyone noticed, releasing three flawless albums in their 20s and still being influential now. Despite often having ideas that resemble taking a crap on their own career and future.