BRINSLEY SCHWARZ: NERVOUS ON THE ROAD (1972)
1) It's Been So Long; 2) Happy Doing What We're Doing; 3) Surrender To The Rhythm; 4) Don't Lose Your Grip On Love; 5) Nervous On The Road; 6) Feel A Little Funky; 7) I Like It Like That; 8) Brand New You, Brand New Me; 9) Home In My Hand; 10) Why, Why, Why, Why, Why.
Hey hey, now this is what I call pub rock! Same year — two completely different worlds. All of a sudden, Brinsley Schwarz are no longer a homebrewn pale copy of «The Band trying to sound like Van Morrison», but a vivacious outfit whose songs make you want to dance, frolick, have a good time in general — with a sentimental ballad or two in the works, but nothing that would pretend at soulful depth and fail (and somehow, «failures of the deep» always produce a more miserable effect than «failures of the shallow» — it's like losing $2,000 at poker compared to losing $20 at poker). The songwriting does not get noticeably better, but it gets more adequate, and this arguably makes Nervous On The Road into the definitive Brinsley Schwarz album.
This time, Ian Gomm writes only one song; with the addition of two external covers, this once again leaves Nick Lowe as the principal songwriter, contributing seven new numbers. However, it also feels like Bob Andrews has been pushed to the foreground, and his seemingly relaxed, but really quite disciplined and colorful playing helps drag many of the songs from mediocrity — starting early on with Gomm's only contribution, another so-so Buddy Holly imitation (ʽIt's Been So Longʼ) which, however, has such delicious, light-Mozartian piano flourishes accompanying the main guitar melody as the original Crickets could have never thought of. And then on Lowe's ʽHappy Doing What We're Doingʼ, a quintessential «pub-rocker» if there ever was one, Andrews' organ and piano overdubs also steal the spotlight from everyone else — and then it becomes the regular pattern: Nervous On The Road is a record for piano lovers, not guitar fans.
That detail aside, the record is what Exile On Main St. might have sounded like with much cleaner production, much weaker songwriting, fewer gospel/soul ambitions, and no traces of sleaze, grease, and grit whatsoever. The «politeness» of Brinsley Schwarz becomes especially visible on their cover of ʽI Like It Like Thatʼ, a song that sounded more «dirty» and «raw» when it was performed by The Dave Clark Five, of all people — this version, with soft, playful vocals, a crystal clean guitar solo, and a totally tame rhythm section, suggests that they probably serve nothing but goat's milk at the place called ʽI Like It Like Thatʼ. But just because the tempos have been sped up and the soulfulness has been replaced by friendly low-key entertainment, this politeness does not always result in boredom.
The faster rockers, such as the title track (where Nick tries to emulate the Lou Reed vibe a bit) and the Ronnie Self cover ʽHome In My Handʼ, done here as a one-chord boogie, are hardly a match for the Stones or even the Faces, but technically, they got a great mix, with perfect separation between guitars, keyboards, and vocals, and this is probably just exactly how it's gotta be done if you can't make yourself sound «really special». Things get a little more suspicious when they go for a very low-key, subdued road-blues vibe (ʽFeel A Little Funkyʼ) with guitars and keyboards going for a jazzier, loungier style, but Andrews is on such a roll that I can even stand his bit of Amos Milburn impersonation. And even the album's only reminder of the band's love for the «soulful roots-rock» of The Band and Jackson Browne, ʽDon't Lose Your Grip On Loveʼ, might be their best contribution in this genre — some harrowing vocal twists, a catchy chorus, a piano line copped and well-adapted from ʽThe Weightʼ, it's all enjoyable.
Most importantly, they do sound like they're finally ʽHappy Doing What We're Doingʼ, if only for a brief while — even when the music remains derivative, this lowering of ambitions helps the band achieve better coordination and just have more fun in each other's presence. They may be Nervous On The Road all right, but in the studio they feel quite relaxed and amicable, and the record exudes this hard-to-describe homely charm that every soft-rock record aspires to, but not every soft-rock record actually achieves. With all due reservations, and with the understanding that this is still hardly an album that I might find myself voluntarily coming back to, I still give it a moderate thumbs up — mainly because it provides such a refreshing contrast with everything that preceded it.