Lloyd Cole’s solo performance Thursday at the Birchmere served as a reminder of how good college radio was in the 1980s. And not just because Cole, now 43, offered up the pop-folk nuggets (including “Brand New Friend” and “Butterfly”) that he and his former band, the Commotions, put on so many left-of-the-dial playlists in the years before alternative became mainstream in the music world.

Cole’s voice and songwriting, which emphasize a sort of doomed romanticism, recall many of his most talented contemporaries, mainly Morrissey (though Cole is a little less fey) and Robyn Hitchcock (minus the puns). Cole introduced material from his first U.S. release in five years, “Music in a Foreign Language”: One new tune, “Late Night, Early Town,” finds him mulling the benefits of SpectraVision, the hotel pay-movie service.

He still drops a lot of names into his songs; some well known (Arthur Lee and Joan of Arc), some mysterious (folks identified only as Jane and Julia were talked up during this night’s set) and some ecclesiastical (Jesus and his mother get scads of play in the Cole oeuvre). He imitated Tom Waits’s gargling mumble during “Unhappy Song” and went for Johnny Cash’s guitar sound on “My Bag.”

Cole announced that he’ll be getting back together with the Commotions for some fall gigs in Scotland to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their first album, “Rattlesnakes.” His spare version of “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?” from that debut was particularly powerful. Songs such as that aren’t written anymore, or played on the radio.

Publication: The Washington Post

Publication date: 08/05/04