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Lloyd Cole Makes A Commotion

Acclaimed English singer/songwriter Lloyd Cole, long absent from the new-releases racks of North American record stores, is reemerging on these shores this spring with the belated release of his three most recent albums — 2003's exquisite Music in a Foreign Language, plus two 2001 releases, Etc. and the ambient instrumental collection Plastic Wood — and an accompanying tour. Come autumn, he will be regrouping with his former bandmates from his acclaimed '80s folk-rock band, Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, for several gigs in the UK. Somewhere in between, he will be writing and recording material for his next album, which should be released next year.

"I was excited to make Music in a Foreign Language, and as long as I'm excited to [make new music], I want to do it," Cole, 43, said during a recent phone interview. "So long as it doesn't just become a vanity project where nobody is listening. I think this last record has been good for me in that a lot of people who were possibly skeptical about the validity of people like me continuing have taken their hats off and said 'He's quite good.'"

This week, music fans in the U.S. and Canada will get the chance to hear Music in a Foreign Language with its release on One Little Indian Records U.S. On April 20, Etc. will make its first North American appearance, followed by the May 11 reissue of Plastic Wood.

Cole, as leader of the Commotions, first came to prominence worldwide back in 1984 with the release of the critically acclaimed Rattlesnakes, which spawned a smash hit in the UK with the jangly, literate folk-rock sound of "Perfect Skin." His stateside profile peaked with the Commotions' latter two albums, Easy Pieces and Mainstream. A number of tracks from those albums, including "Lost Weekend," "Brand New Friend," "My Bag," and "Jennifer She Said," received extensive airplay on college radio, while their accompanying videos became a fixture on the alternative music shows of the time: USA Networks' "Nightflight" and MTV's "120 Minutes."

A UK reunion this October of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the release of Rattlesnakes. In preparation, the band — guitarist/singer Cole, lead guitarist Neil Clark, keyboardist Blair Cowan, bassist Lawrence Donegan and drummer Stephen Irvine — will spend three weeks rehearsing in Glasgow to prepare for the handful of shows, which will exclusively feature Commotions material.

Cole sounds excited about the Commotions' reunion shows, but he adamantly insists that these gigs are a one-off thing, and that he is very much a solo performer now. "It'll be fun to play rock-pop with some old friends, but I can't imagine putting a rock band together," Cole said, his soft voice carrying the slight accent of an Englishman who has spent more than a decade living in the States. "On the other hand, I can imagine recording with a rock band occasionally."

Cole hopes to do just that soon with the members of Bob Hund, a veteran Swedish act he enthusiastically describes as "the only rock band I've heard in the past five or six years who actually excite me."

The veteran tag certainly applies to Cole as much as to his Swedish friends. Yet even in the world of "adult" (as opposed to "rock") pop music, the contemporary music industry places an emphasis on new faces. "A lot of it's down to novelty," Cole opines. "If David Gray and I were starting out at the same time, people wouldn't talk about him. I don't mean that in an arrogant way; I just don't think that they would."

Still, there remains a niche for artists such as Cole who maintain a strong work ethic. Cole keeps regular office hours in a workspace near the New England town where he resides with his wife and children, tending to the business and creative sides of his career alike. It is in this space that he recorded Music in a Foreign Language; it's also where, after some recent tuneup work with producer Mick Glossop, he is beginning work on new material.

"I have an idea for an album, and I've finished a couple of the songs for it, and I have a substantial amount of 60-percent-finished ideas," Cole said. "I'm planning to work on it in between all the other stuff this year….

"It doesn't sound like the last one, unfortunately — I was kind of hoping that I was just going to be quiet and maudlin the rest of my life," he added, a grin audible in his voice.

"The new stuff requires a bit more of a beat; it's slightly perkier than I wanted, but you can't really dictate that kind of stuff," Cole said. "I just take what I write and try to be a decent editor and try and live with it long enough to go, 'Is that really worth hearing or not?' If it is, I'll try to do the best version I can do of that song."

Having long used Macintosh computers for composing and recording songs, he is eager to work on new material in hotel rooms during his upcoming tour of the U.S. and Canada.

The Commotions disbanded in 1989, but not for the acrimonious reasons that lead to many breakups. "We just sort of ran out of steam, and I didn't feel like being in a band that just kind of became an industry," Cole said. "I found it to be quite a big pressure to have other people's livelihoods dependent on my fickle nature…. It's not that I didn't want to be in that band; I didn't want to be in any band. I was very glad to be in the band that I was in."

That same year, Cole moved to the U.S. to launch a solo career. His self-titled debut, released in 1990, featured a crew of esteemed New York musicians, including guitarist Robert Quine (Lou Reed, Richard Hell and the Voidoids), drummer Fred Maher (Richard Hell and the Voidoids), and a young Matthew Sweet on bass. Despite the new backing band, he continued to work in a vein similar to the Commotions, albeit with a darker, more urban lyrical cast.

Cole went on to craft string-sweetened orchestral music (much of 1991's Don't Get Weird on Me, Babe) and psychedelic/glam rock (1993's Bad Vibes) before returning to his signature chiming guitar style on 1995's Love Story. Many of these albums feature writing and recording contributions from ex-Commotions Clark and Cowan.

The new millennium found Cole fronting a new band, a guitar-heavy supergroup of sorts called The Negatives, which featured guitarist Jill Sobule (who had a minor hit of her own with 1995's "I Kissed a Girl"), bassist David Derby (formerly of The Dambuilders), guitarist Michael Kotch (ex-Eve's Plumb), and drummer Rafa Maciejak. The band played out regularly but released only a single album, 2000's The Negatives, before splitting the next year.

In 2001 Cole offered an intriguing glimpse into his creative process through a pair of very different albums, Plastic Wood and Etc. The former release found Cole all but abandoning traditional rock instrumentation to create 18 electronic ambient pieces, while the latter compiles material recorded between Love Story and The Negatives. This grab bag of covers, instrumentals, demos and full-fledged studio recordings pointed the singer/songwriter toward his current career as a solo artist who works collaboratively on his recordings but performs live backed solely by his acoustic guitar — a phase introduced with Music in a Foreign Language.

Beyond his next album, Cole hopes to continue recording and touring for years to come. "Over the past few years, I've come to actually enjoy performing, and I could be quite happy to just be a performer in 10 years' time and just go out from time to time to pay the rent. I get quite a lot of job satisfaction from putting on a good show," he said, with typical understatement.

Cole will be performing a series of U.S. and Canadian solo dates in April and May, including shows in Montreal, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Further details are available on the One Little Indian Records U.S. Web site. Fans can also keep up with Cole's doings via the Web site he maintains at www.lloydcole.com. — Steve Gozdecki [Wednesday, March 31, 2004]

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