Graham Parker has been making records for over 25 years and, while its a shame that hes not a household name, its surprising how many of his discs are still in print. At least four of them -- all readily available -- should be in every rock-and-roll collection: Howlin Wind, Heat Treatment (both 1976), Squeezing Out Sparks (1979); and The Mona Lisas Sister (1988).
Parker is famously ill tempered, particularly in matters involving his treatment by record companies, but theres a core of tenderness in his work. Both qualities are on display in Parkers newest disc for Razor & Tie, Deepcut to Nowhere. His cranky side leads off the disc with "Dark Days," which contains some vivid, unsettling imagery:
Your conscience is worthless here
Parkers slashing lead-guitar lines and strained vocals reinforce his savage observations in the song, but he doesnt overplay his hand or let himself off the hook:
Lets hold the party we said
Theres plenty of anger to go around on Deepcut to Nowhere, aimed at everyone from booking agents and medium-sized Southern cities ("Ill Never Play Jacksonville Again") to nearly everyone else ("High Horse"). What keeps Parker from being a tiresome crank is that hes usually disappointed about the same things most of us are and hes a clever and observant lyricist. A song like "It Takes a Village Idiot" is saved from its somewhat fashionable point of view by lines like, "Why cant a woman be more like a man/Instead of complicated."
His other saving graces are his sense of humor and his hopefulness. If his last studio recording, Acid Bubblegum, seemed unrelenting in its pessimism (enjoyably so, I thought), Deepcut to Nowhere lets some light in. He follows the two fairly dark songs that open the disc with "If It Ever Stops Rainin," where he sings of the clouds parting and the sun breaking through, and of the salvation of love: "Ill put my arms around you/Under the blue blue sky." Because Parker is, at heart, a romantic and a humanist, hes rarely mean-spirited. His lone slip here is "Syphilis & Religion," whose subject --religion as the root of all bad things -- is handled in a too cliched manner. Even so, he manages to get off a good line or two.
It shouldnt be news to anyone whos heard him that Parker is a great rock and roll singer, as potent and emotional as Van Morrison or Bruce Springsteen. Hes been compared in the past to both those singers, but he really sounds like no one else. He can sing a tender song like "Last Stop Nowhere" or "Blue Horizon" as convincingly as he sings rockers like "Dark Days." On "Last Stop to Nowhere," his voice expresses a weary resignation and sadness at the ending of a love affair. The song is short -- three minutes -- and it contains just a few lines, but the way Parker sings a line like, "Last stop is nowhere/Thats where Im bound" tells us everything we need to know.
If its a given that Parker can sing, one of the great surprises on this disc is his guitar playing. He began playing lead guitar on Acid Bubblegum, where his solos were effective but somewhat limited. Here he plays with far more confidence, and his solos are well thought out and powerful. Brinsley Schwartz, the guitarist for Parkers former band, the Rumor, is an obvious influence, but Parker has developed a distinctive style and tone. The growling lines that he plays through "Dark Days" are simple, but they sustain the ominous atmosphere of the song.
Parker is supported on the disc by bassist Pete Donnelly of the Figgs, drummer Steve Goulding, who played with Parker in the Rumor, and by the mysteriously named Professor "Louie" on keyboards. The Professor, it turns out, is Aaron Hurwitz, whose extensive resume includes producing and engineering (the Band, Dave Brubeck), as well as playing keyboards on recordings for a number of artists. All three musicians offer subtle support to Parkers songs, especially Hurwitz, whose contributions are so understated it takes a few listens to realize how much color and variety he brings to the arrangements.
As a producer, Parker keeps things simple. Theres very little overdubbing on the disc, and it has a more spacious feel than Acid Bubblegum did. I would prefer that the drums had a little more presence, but the disc has such an honest, unfussy feel about it that I dont want to cavil about something so minor. One or two things dont completely work -- "Socks and Sandals" is a little too precious -- but even the tunes that falter have something, usually Parkers singing, that keeps you from hitting the forward button.
In all the time hes been making records, Graham Parkers always been true to himself. Even on a record like Another Gray Area, where an indifferent band and glossy production threatened to drag him down, his voice rang out clear. He may not be as famous as he should be, but he makes records on his own terms. Very few pop musicians can point to a series of recordings as well crafted and as full of real emotion as Parkers. Were fortunate that a label like Razor & Tie exists for artists like him.
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