For a while there, you could scarcely pick up a magazine without seeing Lloyd Cole hawking high-priced liqueur in his series of "Amaretto di Cole" ads. One of the recent slick endorsements was set against a neon-lighted New York backdrop and had the singer-guitarist brooding into a cigarette while slumped Brandoesque against a vintage black Cadillac. Cole the amaretto salesman actually came off much like Cole the performer: sophisticated, sullen and more than a little aloof.

Of course, no one would've dared offer the Derbyshire-born musician a job as spokesdude for Miller beer. Belching out a slogan like "Tastes great! Less filling!" just wouldn't be this Brit's cup of tea.

Cole has always seemed a little too smart, too good-looking, too refined for a prosaic profession like rock 'n' roll. Maybe it was his rarefied presence that garnered the dapper intellectual a reputation for being distant and egocentric during his five-year stint with Scottish band the Commotions. When his group broke up last year, some even charged that Cole's bigheadedness was to blame for the split--an accusation the singer sternly refutes.

"My ego certainly wasn't the reason the band disintegrated," assures the soft-spoken, articulate Cole in a recent telephone interview. "I've seen ego problems; I know I don't have one. I think a lot of people believe I do have [a big ego] because I don't play down what I do. I mean, I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I had something to offer and that I wasn't going to be in some average band. The world doesn't need another average band."

Over the course of three LPs, the Commotions' output ranged from intensely witty to insufferably pretentious--but never, ever average. The band's zenith came with 1988's Mainstream, which featured aching balladry, sweet pop and a mocking--but not entirely unsympathetic--ode to paparazzi-bashing actor Sean Penn. (It's apparently coincidental that Cole is currently touring with Michael Penn, Sean's singing sibling.)

But not long after recording this LP, Cole succumbed to the solo itch. "The reason I left the Commotions was that I didn't want to be in a band anymore," he explains. "There's a lot of stress involved. Every move you make affects four other people. I think if there had been some marvelous idea for a fourth record by the Commotions, I would have stuck it out. But there wasn't. I think we pretty much did all we were going to do, and I don't like bands that just keep going."

Cole admits that he's never really gotten caught up in the collaborative spirit of a band. He prefers to play bossman from start to finish on a project. Cole even said recently that working with free-lance musicians on his new self-titled solo record appealed to him because "they were willing to work under me rather than with me." Still, Cole insists that he doesn't assume a monarchal role in the studio.

"The musicians I'm working with certainly don't have to keep their mouths shut," he stresses. "On the new LP it was myself, Fred Maher, and Paul Hardiman all co-producing, so it was almost like we had our own little band."

Cole says putting together his first solo effort was "remarkably stress-free." The singer credits this to his high-caliber--if highly unlikely--supporting players. Sidemen like co- producer/drummer Maher and guitarist Robert Quine both are alumni of seminal punk act Richard Hell and the Voidoids.

Cole also believes a change of scenery--he recently relocated from England to New York's West Village--helped jump-start his creativity. "I like the fact that nothing is hidden from you in New York," he explains. "I mean, there really isn't an underground because you can see everything."

Cole admits that New York's seamiest sectors hold an odd allure for him. This fascination forms the basis of his solo album's first single, "Downtown," where a city's dark underbelly becomes a metaphor for the dangerous side in us all: "I want to see a touch of evil in your eye . . . I want to take you down into the mire."

On the LP, Cole's still writing evocatively about self-destructive, heartsick individuals who seem in dire need of a therapist's couch. And his tuneful music sounds much the same, if only a little more bluesy and ragged thanks to Quine's sawtooth riffs. So how is this stuff really any different from the Commotions' catalogue?

"Structurally and melodically, I don't think it is different," claims Cole. "But the feel and attitude is much different. I think it's a lot looser. I think it's less concise. In my opinion, it's really a big sprawling mess at times.

"But," Cole is quick to add, "an enjoyable mess."

Lloyd Cole will perform at the Celebrity Theatre on Thursday, July 19, with Michael Penn. Show time is 7:30 p.m.

Cole has always seemed a little too smart, too good-looking, too refined for a prosaic profession like rock 'n' roll.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Blanco