CD Review: Nils Lofgren – Face The Music

CD Review: Nils Lofgren – Face The Music
Fantasy Records
All Access Rating: A

Nils Lofgren - Face The Music 2014
A massive undertaking, curated by none other than Nils Lofgren himself, Face The Music examines with painstaking care the remarkable consistency and craftsmanship of a 45-year solo career of long overshadowed by the masters he's served.

Going on 30 years now, Lofgren's been a part of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, and when he was a precocious 17-year-old unknown fronting the gutsy Washington, D.C., hard-rock combo Grin, Neil Young recruited him to play guitar and piano on Young's classic After The Gold Rush album, thereby starting a fruitful musical relationship between the two.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and Lofgren made the most of it, putting in long hours getting his parts down pat. That tireless work ethic, combined with the heart and soul of a poet, fueled Lofgren's solo artistry, and this is the comprehensive retrospective he's deserved for so long.

Nils Lofgren playing live
Spread across 10 discs – one a DVD of vintage live performances, with two others unearthing 40 previously unreleased songs and rarities – are 169 tracks, hand-picked with care by Lofgren from his albums with Grin and critically fawned-over solo efforts, some of them out of print for years, released between 1975 and 1992 for labels like A&M, MCA/Backstreets, CBS and Rykodisc. And, thankfully, he didn't ignore material he's been putting out on his own Cattle Track Road Records imprint since 1993.

There's not a cynical bone in his entire body of song, where honesty, passion and integrity mean as much as a keen pop sensibility and sparkling production. Stax Records, the British Invasion, countrified blues and elegant folk, early rock 'n' roll – Lofgren assimilates easily when visiting a variety of genres, his songwriting a natural extension of his influences. On top of that, as a guitar player, his economical approach, sure-footed fretwork and tasteful licks never seem needlessly ostentatious or flashy, and yet they never fail to make an impression.

It's easy to see why Springsteen took a shine to Lofgren, the two sharing an affinity for the simple truths and hopeful energy of Heartland rock, as "Girl in Motion" and a stylish live version of "Black Books" could have slipped right into Springsteen's Tunnel of Love without The Boss ever knowing. His version of the Del Shannon-penned "I Go to Pieces" has the rousing spirit of the Springsteen anthems, and gritty rockers "Across The Tracks" and "Secrets of the Streets" shove their hands in pockets full of solid hooks and blue-collar dreams as they wander around Asbury Park, just as the strains of the sublime "Valentine," immersed in soulful longing, escape from Memphis under the cover of night to help lovers everywhere negotiate treaties of raw emotions.

Nils Lofren and his guitar
From his days with Grin comes the summery mood-elevator "Everybody Misses The Sun," an ambling, exceedingly likable romp with a bright chorus and carnival atmosphere that imagines The Kinks' Ray Davies sitting in with The Grateful Dead. Altogether exuberant, "White Lies," with its acoustic guitar jangle, finds Lofgren working out steely guitar figures designed to ensnare listeners, while "I Came to Dance," from his solo days, embraces disco with unabashed joy and drags it into the street.

That's just a small sampling of this bounty, accompanied by a page-turner of a booklet, handwritten by Lofgren and jam-packed with photos, anecdotes, insight and reflections on a life in music. Get lost in it as Face The Music cycles through soft, introspective piano balladry ("Heaven's Answer to Blue"), bluesy slide guitar excursions ("World on a String"), zydeco-infused drinking songs ("Whatever Happened to Muscatel") and grizzled romantic pop contentment ("When You Are Loved"), as well as the usual tight, sharp blasts of well-chiseled, immaculately produced rock that's always been his bread and butter.

As an introduction to Lofgren's catalog, it's a bit overwhelming, but the Fantasy Records box set Face The Music is certainly worth the time spent slogging your way through it. And for devotees, there are surprises galore, as well as familiar highlights. Don't be afraid to Face The Music. This is the good stuff, and there's plenty of it.
– Peter Lindblad

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