From The The's Matt Johnson to Morrissey, it seems as if many of the British singer/songwriters who first rose to prominence back in the '80s take extended holidays between albums. Onetime Lloyd Cole and The Commotions leader Lloyd Cole a sensation in England with "Perfect Skin" nearly 20 years ago took five years between 1995's Love Story and 2000's The Negatives; thus he is one of these "disappearers." But unlike, say, Johnson, who has scrapped several completely recorded The The albums, Cole has chosen to lift the curtain with his recent Etc., an album of tracks spanning 1996 to 2000.
Cole recorded Etc. before hooking up with most of the musicians who play in the Negatives, his current band. The album features a pair of guitar aces: frequent Cole sideman Robert Quine (a founding member of Richard Hell's Voidoids, who has also played with Lou Reed, John Zorn, and Matthew Sweet, among others) makes the most out of each note on his riffs and solos, while Neil Clark (formerly of The Commotions) helps out on lap steel. Guitars dominate throughout, with layers of clean-sounding acoustics supplemented by Quine's ringing electric leads and Clark's sliding tones. Cole's voice remains strong and smooth, still prone to the occasional Dylanesque slurring, but able to convey the whole spectrum of emotions from hope to healing to heartbreak.
The Cole-penned tracks on Etc. are tied together by a rather mature worldview (Cole is 40-something now). "She says it takes an open mind/ I think she means an open relationship," Cole sings on "Another Lover," seeing through to his soon-to-be-ex-lover's intentions. He appears to poke a bit of fun at his wordy tendencies on the rushed "39 Down" when he sings "I said to my wife 'Do you think I've said too much?'/She said 'Well isn't that what your job is?'"
Musically, the best track is "Alright People"; its two nearly identical solos demonstrate the strengths of the very different players assisting Cole, as the rougher distorted edges of Quine's electric contrast with the smooth twang of Clark's steel.
A pair of well-chosen covers Bob Dylan's "You're a Big Girl Now" and Karen Black's "Memphis" (from the Robert Altman film "Nashville") appear midway through the disc. Also included are four instrumentals, not traditionally a part of the Cole oeuvre. The album begins and ends with versions of "Backwoods," a somber piece with rich acoustic guitar and keyboard work, the rather plodding "Sunburst," and "Santa Cruz," which features a big, hollow drum sound reminiscent of the drum circles heard in the California college town (and hippie haven) of the same name.
Even the more demo-ish songs toward the end of the record, which find Cole handling all the instruments himself, shine. "Fool You Are" and "Weakness," dominated by acoustic guitar, harmonica, and percussion, suggest what we would hear if Cole were ever to record and release an entire album without a band (he's recently performed some shows solo, folksinger-style, so perhaps we'll get a album of just Cole at some point). "Fool You Are" updates the notion of "wherever you are, there you are," with Cole name-checking a number of locales around the globe while reminding himself that he's still the same transparent fool no matter where he may find himself. "Weakness" features what could be the best use of the maracas since The Monkees, with the self-aware Cole slyly admitting "You can accuse me/ Of courting despair/ Forsaken for art's sake/ Guilty as charged."
At this point in his career, if you're already a Lloyd Cole fan, you pretty much know what to expect (and that's not at all a criticism): jangly guitars, literate lyrics that alternately break your heart and make you grin, mid-tempo arrangements, and Cole's distinctive voice. Etc. may contain a better set of songs than the two "official" albums that chronologically bookend it. And that's the sole negative here. While fine writing and playing are found throughout, the tracks don't quite add up to a coherent album; this is simply a collection of very good songs. I'm not complaining, though. Until Cole's next release, expected early next year, this will do nicely.
Note: Etc. is available as a single disc, and as part of a four-CD box set that features an otherwise-unavailable live album, a disc of experimental musical pieces, and The Negatives.