Lloyd Cole, Jill Sobule Out To Prove Two Negatives Make A Positive

New band led by British singer/songwriter formerly of the Commotions features folk-pop charmer on guitar.

LOS ANGELES -- It was a perfect spotlight moment Saturday night when Lloyd Cole, alone with his voice and guitar, began a new song called "Man on the Verge."

At least, the lighting guy at the Roxy seemed to think so.

The club's main stage lights were turned all the way down, and Cole himself was brightly illuminated. But playing onstage with his new band, the Negatives, Cole didn't think a spotlight moment was appropriate. So Cole abruptly stopped singing and strumming his guitar and began waving his hand in the air as if to try to scatter the single beam shining on him.

"Hey, we didn't talk about lights beforehand," the Buxton, England-born Cole said, squinting into the light. Amiably but seriously, he added, "Don't do that."

Cole was making it clear that he's not on a solo tour but rather performing with the Negatives, who are currently on tour playing songs from an album due early next year. Among the musicians standing behind him were folk-pop singer/songwriter/guitarist Jill Sobule and guitarist Neil Clark from the Commotions, Cole's 1980s, romantic pop-rock band.

Though Clark is not a permanent member of the Negatives, he is participating on all dates of their current tour, which kicked off in Toronto just before Thanksgiving. The tour will make a detour Tuesday (Dec. 8) to Brazil for two shows before coming back and hitting several more U.S. cities, including Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, N.C., and New York City.

Cole said Monday that he formed the Negatives last year when he began feeling frustrated with his songwriting.

"I wasn't happy with what I was writing," said Cole, 37, who relocated to New York City from England after the Commotions broke up in the late '80s. "By coincidence, I just knew a bunch of people who would make a great band.

"The ironic thing is that, as soon as I formed the band, I started writing songs that were exactly what I wanted," he said.

The Negatives also feature bassist Dave Derby and former Ivy drummer Rafa Maciajek. (Derby's New York-based band, Brilliantine, opened Saturday's show, with Cole on keyboards.)

For their Roxy show, the Negatives played such Commotions hits as the smash British single, "Perfect Skin," as well as several songs taken from Cole's subsequent solo career. The latter included "Like Lovers Do" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Unhappy Song" (RealAudio excerpt) off his most recent album, 1995's Love Story.

But the set also drew heavily on tunes Cole wrote specifically for the Negatives. Those songs featured Cole's emotionally charged lyrics, enhanced by interweaving, intricate guitar lines from Sobule and Clark. The new material will appear on the band's upcoming debut album. Three-quarters of the project, which will likely be called The Negatives, already is recorded but won't hit shelves till next spring.

On the whole, the Negatives' songs -- which include such standout numbers as "That Boy," "Impossible Girl" and "Past Imperfect" -- have simpler structures than Cole's previous work. The singer said he has taken that approach intentionally to allow the band's three guitarists the freedom to express their distinct styles and play more "laterally."

Cole also said that since forming the Negatives, he also has written several songs that don't seem suited to the group. He plans to record those for a solo, folk-styled album.

But, for now, he is focusing his efforts on the band.

After meeting Sobule at a music convention in Ireland last year, Cole became impressed by her guitar playing and asked her to join an embryonic version of the Negatives. Sobule said she enjoys stepping away from the mic and into a format that depends on her as a musician.

"I can just be a guitar player," she said after Saturday's show.

Though Cole has written most of the Negatives' songs alone, he and Sobule recently collaborated on their first song, "Brazil." "It's about going to Brazil and taking drugs," Cole cracked. "It would never happen, but we can fantasize about it."

Following Brilliantine's set Saturday, Sobule performed a solo acoustic set that featured several new tunes, including one called "Mary Kay Letourneau," inspired by the currently jailed school teacher who was twice impregnated by one of her students. A buoyant, funny folk-pop song, "Mary Kay" features the lines, "Though he's too young to drive/ He's old enough to please you."

Another new number was "Lucy at the Gym," which Sobule explained was about "a girl I'm obsessed with at the gym -- she has anorexia." Sobule, who exudes a warmth and charm onstage, also played a brief bluegrass version of gangsta-rapper Snoop Dogg's "Gin And Juice."

Cole and the rest of the Negatives then joined Sobule for a few more rocking numbers, including two new bona fide pop songs, "Bitter" and "Mexican Wrestler."

"This is about one of those really bad crushes you had, but they didn't like you back so you're still f---ed up over it," Sobule said, referring to the latter number.

Sobule's set closed with a sing-along version of her 1995 novelty hit, "I Kissed A Girl" (RealAudio excerpt). Taking the lead mic after the number was done, Cole scratched his head and said, "That totally f---ed my composure. I have to be sensitive and moody now. It's just not possible."

The Negatives then performed for two straight hours, sounding more like a band that had been together for a decade than one that had been working for less than a year.

"It's the best atmosphere I've ever had in a band," Cole said. "Normally, performing, I would feel it's just up to me to carry the whole thing. I don't feel like that with this group. I feel like the atmosphere is coming from all of us."