IN THE closing song of his new album, Nils Lofgren defiantly sings, "Love my life/Live it I rough/Treading water/Never gone under." Even unintentionally, it's an accurate synopsis of a career that began in Washington teen clubs in the late '60s, exploded with the promise of Grin, augmented the shadowy brilliance of Neil Young and then sputtered through most of the solo '70s trying to live up to everybody's expectations. In 1973, a prestigious British music paper ran Pop Recordings a profile of Lofgren as part of a continuing series, "Underrated Musicians of Yesterday." Lofgren was 23 at the time.
"Night Fades Away" (Backstreet BSR-5251) is Lofgren's first album in almost two years, and it marks a return to the strengths incorrectly exploited on his most recent studio albums. Producer Jeff "Skunk" Baxter has focused on Lofgren's perfect pop hooks and stinging guitar lines; a Lofgren song typically starts out with a clearly defined guitar riff and ends with a climactic chorus, with Lofgren punching out excited rhythms like a fighter going into the final rounds knowing he's ahead on the score card. It's a situation that in the past has led to excesses, but this time around Lofgren is holding everything in check. His voice is still limited and lightweight, lacking the authority his melodies and themes demand, but Lofgren sounds better on "Night Fades Away" than he has since the fabled "authorized" live bootleg.
From the start, Lofgren has been one of the romantics of rock. "I don't like to hurt no one," he sings on the petulant "Don't Touch Me." In a number of songs -- "Ancient History" and "Empty Heart" in particular -- Lofgren emerges as one of the walking wounded who finds solace in music. "Ancient History," with its comeuppance line of "Someday you'll be filed next to me . . . as Ancient History," features some sweeping and majestic piano from Nicky Hopkins, while its gloomy aura recalls Neil Young.
Lofgren provides two covers: a competent, Spectorish reading of the Beatles' "Anytime at All" and an honest reproduction of Dell Shannon's "I Go to Pieces" with old Dell chiming in on harmony vocals. It's Lofgren's songs that stand out, though, ranging from the power pop of "Sailor Boy" to the exuberant hardness of "In Motion," Lofgren's "I Will Survive" statement in which it's apparent that his pride and ideals are still intact after all these years, and will remain so as long as he can keep playing that "red guitar." The song features cascading trumpet from Chuck Findley, one of the many top musicians Baxter used on the labrum; the guitar work from Lofgren, Baxter and Elliott Randall is top-notch throughout. On "Streets Again," Lofgren poses as a streetwise pimp, but when he says "Love put another on the street again," you feel he's talking about his music rather than women: "I'll put another on the street again/The youngest are the first to bend/I love my victims like my friends/Streets again."
In the late '60s, Lofgren and Grin were one of the most popular bands in the Washington area; another was Sageworth and Drums, a more popishly oriented band drawn from Georgetown University students. That band spawned Walter Egan (who released five albums for Columbia and had a top-ten single with Stevie Nicks called "Magnet and Steel") and Annie McLoone (who recorded one solo album for RCA). Before there was a Sageworth, though, there were the Malibooz, New York City high school kids enthralled with the hard-driving surf music that ruled the West Coast. "Malibooz Rules" (Rhino RNLP100) is the album they wanted to make in 1965, when they reached their peak at the New York World's Fair.
There's actually a hilarious snippet of interview from 1965 in which guitarist John Zambetti (now a true rock 'n' roll doctor in California) gives a quick lesson in the differences between surf music and English rock. As a whole, the album lives up to its first song, "Sweet surf music rolling through my ears." Most of the songs come from Zambetti and Egan, with Govinda Gallery owner Chris Murray singing the lead to "Goin to Malibu" (which he wrote as a 16-year-old).
With a little help from Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham, the Malibooz in 1981 have captured the spirit, and more importantly, the varied sound of the genre: the tough aggression of Frizz Fuller's "Surfin' Ghost," the wimpy "Gonna Hustle You" and the silly wordplay of "Honeydew (We Can't Elope)." There's even an update of another Egan hit song (for Night) called "Hot Summer Nights '81." It's all there -- the twangy reverb guitar, the ethereal harmonies, the echoey drum rolls. "Malibooz Rules" is great fun; these sons of beaches have kept the summer alive longer than it probably deserves.