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Nick Lowe/Photo by Rex Features via AP Images

Lowe maintenance

Music | The Old Magic shows a once fast-living rocker at his mellow and wise best

Issue: "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," Oct. 22, 2011

"I'm 61 years old now," sings Nick Lowe on the second cut of his latest album, The Old Magic (Yep Roc). "Lord, I never thought I'd see 30." Since recording that line, he's turned 62, but as "61" isn't a rhyme, he can easily bring the song up to date should he ever perform it live.

And no doubt his astonishment at having reached whatever ripe old age he'll be when he does perform it will only grow. He did, after all, cover the Faron Young hit "Live Fast, Love Hard, Die Young" in 1984 when, as an alcoholic and the soon-to-be ex-husband of Carlene Carter, he was still adhering to the first two parts of that song's advice. In short, he's been living on what he apparently considers borrowed time for several decades now.

During that period, he has become rich (thanks to Curtis Stigers' windfall-generating cover of his "[What's So Funny 'Bout] Peace, Love, and Understanding" on the multi-platinum soundtrack to The Bodyguard), mellow, and wise. He's perfected on a series of albums an elegantly reflective and primarily acoustic style that draws upon and blends mid-20th-century country and jazz to quietly stunning effect.

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Indeed, the strongest songs on The Old Magic seem to have been written with the Frank Sinatra of In the Wee Small Hours, September of My Years, and She Shot Me Down in mind, melancholy masterpieces that span a quarter of a century and whose timelessness Lowe has tapped into. "Stoplight Roses" (about crossing the line between venial and mortal sins against romance), "I Read a Lot" (about trying to forget the wages of those sins), "House for Sale" (about trying to flee those wages), "Sensitive Man" and "You Don't Know Me at All" (about trying to shift the blame)-each dramatizes the moment when one comes to his senses only to realize that he's come to his senses too late.

Those who prefer the young Nick Lowe magic, however, will prefer Rockpile's Live at Montreux 1980 (Eagle Rock), a 16-tracks-in-49-minutes document of just how rockin' the band that he co-led with Dave Edmunds could be on a good night. The group was ostensibly promoting its first (and only) studio album, Seconds of Pleasure. But only Tracks One and Two from that album-both of them obscure covers-were in the setlist, as if the band's real concerns lay elsewhere.

In fact, they did. For some time, Lowe's and Edmunds' "solo" efforts had been Rockpile recordings in disguise, and it's material from these records (three from Lowe's first two solo albums, 11 from Edmunds' first six) to which the band devoted its considerable onstage energy on the July 1980 night that this show was taped.

And lest anyone accuse the band of enhancing that energy by following the (still) standard industry practice of re-recording parts of the show after the fact, the producers at Eagle Rock have left intact every aural glitch-most notably the insufficient levels of Lowe's mic. In the many places where he's supposed to be harmonizing with Edmunds and Billy Bremner, he all but disappears.

The good news is that he's audible enough when he sings lead. He thereby ensured that "So It Goes"-the first lines of which are "I remember the kid cut off his right arm / in a bid to save a bit of power" and seem prophetic at a time during which developed nations are cutting off their technological noses for the same reason-lives on in yet another incarnation.

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