Graded on a Curve:
Grin, 1 + 1

What a trooper. Over the course of his long career–from his prodigal years with Neil Young to his sojourn with Grin to his ever-hopeful solo years to his tenure with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band–Nils Lofgren has shown flashes of greatness, but has never become the big solo star he might have been.

The 1970s in particular must have been tough on our rock ’n’ roll journeyman: good press and a fair amount of hype failed to translate to big sales, either for his band Grin or his much-ballyhooed solo endeavors. Like Graham Parker, Lofgren is the epitome of the bridegroom left waiting forever at the altar, and this despite his having produced some truly top-of-the-shelf music.

Take Grin’s 1972 LP 1 + 1. Having parlayed his tenure with Neil Young into a record deal, Nils formed the three-piece Grin, and on this their sophomore LP he put his formidable songwriting chops to good use in binary fashion, bequeathing us an album with a “Rockin’ Side” and a “Dreamy Side.”

Produced by Neil Young associate David Briggs, 1 +1 blends touches of power pop, country rock, hard rock, and good old orchestrated shlock, and if the shlock doesn’t work everything else hits home. The “Rockin’ Side” is a tour de force, highlighting as it does Lofgren’s ability to write terse, no-nonsense power pop and hard rock songs that will stick to your ribs; the “Dreamy Side,” while a tad more uneven (“Just a Poem” is an embarrassing misstep), demonstrates that he has a flair for the softer stuff as well.

A quick run down:

“White Lies” is a bright slice of power pop that inexplicably failed to go nationwide; to the sound of some really natty strummed guitars Lofgren complains that everywhere he goes he’s hearing white lies, but his discomfiture is our gain; this melodious little number is a stripped-down triumph.

“Please Don’t Hide” also has power pop appeal; Lofgren’s sandpaper vocals hit home as does his sharp guitar work. “I thought love bought me more,” he sings, “but it hurts me at night,” and if you don’t know what he’s talking about, I sure do. He sounds every bit as confused as he does pissed off, and if that ain’t a broken heart talking I don’t know what it is.

“Slippery Fingers” is a hard-rocking boogie number straight out of the Johnny Winters/Rick Derringer songbook; the vocals are nasty, the guitar playing is mean, and you can practically smell the funk in the air. Nils doesn’t sing so much as bite the words off one by one; the rhythm section puts the cowbell up front and goes heavy on the syncopation. Great stuff.

“Moon Tears” is a guitar/piano rave up; Lofgren snarls, shows off his chops, and engages in a guitar duel with his own damn self. “Listen!” he shouts: “Everyone is trying to love the one I love/I don’t think they really understand love.” Simultaneously pounding while light on its feet, this baby may not have you crying moon tears, but it just may leave you weeping for sheer rock ’n’ roll joy.

“End Unkind” is the last of the rockers and perhaps the least of them, which isn’t to say it’s inconsequential; it boasts a big, bad riff, some big, bad vocals (by somebody other than Nils), and boogies along just fine, especially when Nils cuts loose on guitar and the drummer gets frisky. The unison vocals are great, the handclaps will have you clapping, and the song goes out with some maniacal laugher. Perhaps this isn’t the least of them after all.

On “Sometimes” Lofgren strums a lovely melody and croons: “Don’t let girls get you down/They’re just beautiful.” But he’s not ignoring the girls; he tells them to not let the boys break their hearts because the boys, well, “they’re just wonderful.” Hogwash? Perhaps. But while he may not know shit about the complexities of the human heart, he sure knows how to start a “dreamy LP side with a dreamy tune.

“Lost a Number” is a plaintive winner; set against what sounds to my tone-deaf ears like an accordion, he sings the verses in a pleasing lilt and turns the choruses into little celebrations. “Hi, Hello Home,” meanwhile, is a delightful little country rocker right down to the banjo and Graham Nash’s backing vocals; it trips along with the simplicity of a good Neil Young tune, and will be with you long after you’ve turned if off.

Things go terribly amiss on the suspiciously titled “Just a Poem.” Lofgren goes supper club on this heavily orchestrated fiasco; every time I hear it I shriek “Holy ghost of Sammy Davis Jr.!” What possessed him to put this over-emotive set piece on 1 + 1 is beyond me; was it a demo he recorded in hopes of securing a role in a production of Oklahoma!?

“Soft Fun” begins on an even more disconcerting note; first we get a child singing to the accompaniment of some dreamy strings, then some harpsichord and organ drone, and things seem to be headed straight to hell when–thankfully–the whole thing devolves into a big, orchestrated, piano-driven anthem for the ages. Lofgren really lets loose vocally as the song reaches its Eric Carmen-style, “look at all the lonely people” climax; I have no idea what “soft fun” is but this I do know–Lofgren goes right over the top on “Soft Fun” and somehow pulls it off, cascading strings and all, and this one is a glorious closer to an otherwise down-to-earth LP.

Nils Lofgren has a home in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it’s not so difficult to imagine a world in which he would have stormed it by main force instead of slipping in as a member of the E Street Band. He has mad skills as a singer and guitar player and has written a whole slew of incredible songs. Did Lofgren live up to his incredible promise? Not quite. But I still can’t help but think he should be a star in his own right, and touring with his own E Street Band in tow. He’s that good.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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