In their two-and-a-half-decade, 15-album hot streak as America’s foremost instrumental guitar combo, Los Straitjackets has earned a reputation for audacious album concepts and star-crossed collaborations.
Both descriptions apply to Los Straitjackets’ new album What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets. The new album finds the masked marvels paying tribute to friend, Yep Roc labelmate and longtime admirer Nick Lowe, delivering distinctive instrumental interpretations of 13 songs drawn from the English master tunesmith’s illustrious career.
“The only suggestion Nick gave us,” says guitarist Greg Townson, “was ‘Don’t be too reverential, ignore the original versions. Do the songs the way Los Straitjackets would do them.'”
What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets marks a timely convergence of Lowe’s singular songwriting sensibility and Los Straitjackets’ sublime interpretive skills, with the band revealing new melodic depth and sonic dynamics in such familiar Lowe-penned standards as “Cruel to Be Kind,” “Heart of the City” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” while recasting more recent Lowe gems such as “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide,” “I Read A Lot” and ”I Live On A Battlefield” in exciting new directions.
“Recording these songs reminded me what a great melodist Nick is,” observes guitarist and co-founder Eddie Angel. “Everybody knows that he writes great lyrics, but he doesn’t always get credit for his amazing melodies. The fact that the songs stand up as instrumentals is proof of that. And I think that we managed to bring something new to the songs, which is what you hope to do when you’re covering other people’s material.”
“Nick works hard on his songs to make them sound like he didn’t work hard on them,” adds Townson. “When you start analyzing them and thinking about how to arrange them, you realize how beautifully constructed they are, and how subtle they are. They sound simple on the surface, but they’re actually pretty complex. I think that these songs really brought out the best in us, as players and as arrangers.”
Lowe himself makes a stealthy vocal cameo that’s so subliminal that the band declines to actually reveal what track it’s on. He also appears alongside the Straitjackets on the album’s front cover, which brilliantly spoofs the iconic cover art of Lowe’s beloved 1978 debut Jesus of Cool (aka Pure Pop for Now People), which Yep Roc reissued in an expanded edition in 2008.
“One thing that I think we have in common with Nick is our shared sense of humor,” Angel offers.
What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets also prominently features co-founding guitarist Danny Amis. While Amis had previously been forced to take a leave of absence from the band for health reasons, his instrumental and arranging talents are abundant on the album.
“Danny being a part of this project is huge for us,” says Townson, who originally joined the band when illness forced Amis to curtail his touring activities. “To have Danny on this record was really important to us; he brought in a lot of great ideas and arrangements.”
“Danny sent us demos of some of his ideas, and they cracked everybody up,” Angel recalls. “‘All Men Are Liars’ was one of his, I think. I really like hat one; to me, it sounded like a Shadows song.”
The band recorded What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets with producer and longtime Lowe collaborator Neil Brockbank, who’s overseen the recording of Lowe’s last six studio albums. The album also features longstanding Lowe band member Geraint Watkins on keyboards, as well as the recording debut of his 12-year-old son Royston Lowe on percussion.
“Neil brings all of his history with Nick to the project,” Townson notes. “He also knows Los Straitjackets really well, because he’d been on the road with us, so he knew our sound and our playing and our personalities. And obviously he knows Nick’s sensibility, so he was the perfect guy for the job.”
“Neil was great to work with, and he kind of brought Nick’s perspective to it,” Angel adds. “He also encouraged us to not just do the obvious songs. There were some things that we thought had to be on there, like ‘Cruel to Be Kind’ and ‘Peace, Love and Understanding,’ but he also encouraged us not to neglect Nick’s more recent records. So it’s a nice balance.”
The seeds for the project were planted when the Straitjackets teamed with Lowe in 2014 for the first of their now-annual Christmas “Quality Holiday Revue” tours, which have seen both acts unite on stage, with Brockbank serving as road manager and sound engineer.
“We’ve had so much fun doing these Christmas tours with Nick, and I think he got a kick out of them too,” says Angel. “I think we managed to capture some of that spirit on this record.”
Amis and Angel originally formed Los Straitjackets in Nashville in 1994, adopting a swaggering, twang-intensive sound that encompasses surf-rock, rockabilly, vintage movie soundtracks and all manner of exotic ephemera. They also adopted the trademark Mexican wrestling masks that have been the band’s visual calling card ever since. With Pete Curry on bass and Chris Sprague on drums, the band has won an enduring reputation as a consistently inventive recording unit and a boundlessly entertaining live act, winning a large and devoted fan base in the process.
What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets is consistent with Los Straitjackets’ tradition of exploring varied musical territory with a diverse array of kindred spirits. They’ve recorded albums with such fellow iconoclasts as rockabilly vocalist Big Sandy, country-rock dynamo Deke Dickerson, blues veteran Eddy Clearwater, Scottish garage-rocker Kaiser George and burlesque troupe the World Famous Pontani Sisters, as well as tracks with Dave Alvin, Exene Cervenka, Mark Lindsay, Raul Malo and the Reverend Horton Heat, all of whom loaned their voices to the 2001 album Sing Along with Los Straitjackets.
“The idea is that each project should have its own identity and its own approach,” says Townson, “so collaborations make sense with us, merging our thing with their thing. We’ve been really, really fortunate to work with some fantastic people who bring out the best in us. And with Nick, we’ve all been fans for so long; he’s the only artist I can think of who I’ve bought every one of his records right when they came out.”
“Right from the get-go, we were always just out to entertain people, and entertain ourselves,” Angel states. “When we started, we wanted to be an antidote to all of these serious bands that didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Over the years, I think some critics saw us with the wrestling masks and thought that we were joking around, but we’ve never coasted on that. We wanted it to be fun, but at the same time, we’ve always been serious about the music, and I think the music stands up.”
And there’s plenty more to come, Angel insists. “We’ve got lots of ideas,” he says. “We’ve got more ideas than we have time, so we’re gonna be busy for awhile.”