Nils Lofgren – Face the Music Box Set (ALBUM REVIEW)


nilslofgrenFace the Music makes an ever so convincing case for Nils Lofgren as the unsung hero of  contemporary American rock and roll. Documenting his forty-five year career in great detail through music, video, text and photos, this uniquely-designed ten-disc box set portrays the multi-instrumentalist and songwriter as a self-motivated artist on his own terms as well as an empathetic collaborator.

Lofgren has been a true underground artist for much of his career  The nuance within the musicianship and composition of the work he did with his first band, Grin, may well have been its downfall as in songs such as “Like Rain” and “Everyone’s Missing the Sun,” he transcends the lowest common denominator. Lofgren stretches the boundaries of structure and content, on cuts such as “Outlaw” decorated by piano and understated guitar, then engages in the wide-open propulsion of “White Lies,” where acoustic guitars mesh with electric in a quantum leap in production  sophistication from the Grin sequel 1+1.

The rescue of material off all four of that group’s titles, including All Out and Gone Crazy, legitimizes Face the Music, simultaneously positing Nils Lofgren as an honest, focused autobiographer. While the original recordings captured the subtlety of layered tracks like “Moon Tears” the mastering of the recordings in this box preserves a clarity reflective of Lofgren’s own focus on his work. Such a singular state of mind epitomized his eponymous solo album including “Back It Up” and “I Don’t Want to Know,” (here in a version taken from the much-sought after Live Bootleg) that should’ve propelled him along a career arc high and wide as his grasp of writing, arranging and playing.

But the incorporation of varied production values on subsequent projects, the earliest ones like Cry Tough overseen by the likes of Blood Sweat & Tears founder and Dylan sideman Al Kooper, only served to dilute Lofgren’s personality. Still, his ability to forge a group sensibility out of varied instrumental lineups served as the further proving ground for his eventual enlistment as a sideman when the call came from Neil Young (in followup to Lofgren’s insistent backstage introduction) and Bruce Springsteen at various junctures of Nils’ career. Yet, even as the production of his recordings became generic, his effervescent personality remained in his singing and much of his songwriting. In addition, once you’ve hear him twirling off one of his patented guitar solos such as the one on “Empty Heart,” it’s hard to accept a saxophone solo instead, even if it’s played by a bonafide jazz-master like David Sanborn on “A Fool Like Me”(a songwriting collaboration with Lou Reed, one of many such partnerships documented on Face the Music).

No such homogeneity afflicts the extensive liner notes in the one-hundred thirty-eight page book here. Ranging from anecdotes about Young’s Tonight’s the Night sessions to mere asides on his tours with Springsteen (evidence of Lofgren’s modesty) plus detailed insight into the individual songs and the atmosphere in which they were written and recorded, this content amounts to a multi-perspective autobiography from a true team player whose story deserves being told but even more so experienced first hand

The inclusion of an assortment of rarities for Face the Music isn’t relegated to demos or otherwise unreleased content either. Nils maintains the scope of the project by weaving selections from one-off projects like original music composed for the 1993 motion picture Every Breath, contributions to an homage to ‘The Boss’ and leadership of the All-(John) Madden Band, each of which evinces the full engagement of the artist himself and those he enlists to work with. As with the various solo albums, Lofgren’s imitable phrasing earmarks tracks such as “Misery” with the personal imprimatur of a musician who never sounds like he’s going through the motions.

Moving sequentially through Face the Music up to and through the DVD instills the distinct impression Nils Lofgren has very astutely paced the set like the savvy musician that he has learned to be. CD’s seven and eight offer a healthy clutch of familiar material such as “Keith Don’t Go,” in alternate versions that nevertheless reinforce the impact of the preceding discs. The increasingly intense progression of tracks piques the curiosity and elevates the need to watch the twenty videos here which, thankfully, are mostly comprised of stage performances rather than conceptual pieces.

A mere smattering of footage featuring Springsteen and the E-Streeters is enough to confirm Lofgren’s front and center often enough to provide crowd-pleasing antics as much as fulfill the role of an instrumental MVP. A series of latter day pieces including selections from a tribute concert and the Grin reunion impresses with Nils’ retention of his inimitable guitar style and while a mini-documentary slash interview for AARP is worth seeing as it reveals the germination of the man’s tap-dancing on the live “Dream Big” included early in the DVD, its appearance at the conclusion of Face the Music turns it into an apt metaphor not only Nils Lofgren’s independence, but his resourceful approach to his vocation.

Those virtues, in combination with his very unique station in contemporary rock history, reside at the heart of the conception and execution of this collection and thus make Face the Music far more valuable than many of this (or any other holiday) season’s so-called gift items.

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One Response

  1. the first time I saw Nils in concert, he was opening for Delaney & Bonnie and friends.
    i remember what an great guitar player he was, he blew the crowd away by doing flips on a mini trampoline while playing
    must have been in 69 or 70

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