Brent Johnson’s Lost Songs: Nick Lowe

brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from Nick Lowe …

Musicians are always searching for that signature sound — the sonic template that sets them apart from everyone else.

But if you really want your music to be universal, it starts with the songs. If the songs aren’t strong, that sound of yours could end up nothing but a novelty. The Beatles understood that. So did Billy Joel. So does Radiohead — at least at certain points in their career.

Nick Lowe is a master of the concept. He’s never reinvented a genre. He’s never stuck to one style of music. But the British musician has spent decades churning out reams of lively, distinct songs.

A lanky bass player with a thick thatch of grey hair, Lowe was a stalwart of England’s pub-rock scene in the 1970s, fronting the band Brinsley Schwartz. He then went on to become an in-house producer for the legendary Stiff Records, overseeing albums by The Damned, Dr. Feelgood and — most famously — the brilliant first five releases by Elvis Costello, another genre-hopping songwriter who understands the importance of sturdy tunes.

But Lowe’s own albums are just as good. His first two — 1978’s Jesus Of Cool and 1979’s Labour Of Lust — tend to get lost in the shuffle of all the famous punk, post-punk and new wave records released in the late ’70s. But they’re loaded with catchy, clever tracks that flirt with all kinds of sounds: ’50s pop, rockabilly, disco, funk, torch songs.

Below are examples from each record. First, from Jesus Of Cool, ‘Little Hitler’ — which, despite its title, is as lush as British new wave got, with a gorgeous cascading melody:

Second, from Labour Of Lust, ‘American Squirm’ — a ridiculously hooky burst of energy, which features Elvis Costello’s Attractions as a backing band and Mr. Costello himself on backing vocals: