Long touted by rock critics and ignored by the record buying public, Graham Parker was a key figure in the mid to late 70's British pub-rock scene. Howlin' Wind, Parker’s debut, is a heartfelt triumph by a brash young man that confidently announced the emergence of a fully mature artistic force. Like the punk bands that soon followed, Parker sounds as if he needs rock n’ roll, declaring “I feel like I’ve been a living to die, but when that rhythm plays I don’t know how to cry.” He boasts a far more sophisticated sound than those (generally speaking) stylistically limited bands, however, owing more to the r&b of prime Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen than to The Stooges or the Velvet Underground. Another obvious influence on Parker is Bob Dylan; both share a knack for clever wordplay (example: “I’ve got a lady doctor, she kill the pain for free, I got a lady doctor, oh there ‘aint nothing wrong with me”) and catharsis through song, though Parker is more lyrically straightforward than Bob. It helps that Parker’s backup band, the Rumour (Brinsley Schwartz, Bob Andrews, Martin Belmont, Stephen Goulding, Andrew Bodnar), is spectacular, providing perfect atmospherics on the mellower numbers while lashing out on the up tempo rockers. Especially noteworthy is the swinging rhythm section, which is anchored by Bodnar’s melodic bass playing and Goulding's steady stick work. Alternately swirling keyboards and sprightly piano by Andrews also help, while inventively arranged horns create a full-bodied soul sound. The album as a whole is mellower than subsequent recordings, beginning with "White Honey," which opens the proceedings with a relaxed rocker with an r&b feel. Parker sounds tough and confident on "Nothin's Gonna Pull Us Apart," a soulful, singable ballad, while "Silly Thing" is a slight but fun (and uncharacteristically upbeat) sing along. "Gypsy Blood" is another soulful ballad whose atmospheric keyboards add the perfect coloring, while "Between You And Me" is a lightly melodic and resigned ballad that's another obvious album highlight. Faltering for the first time, "Back To Schooldays" is a generic '50s-styled rocker, while "Soul Shoes" is a solid but unremarkable rocker. "Lady Doctor" then provides some lighthearted fun but again is hardly a classic, but the album again upswings on "You've Got To Be Kidding," another superbly soulful ballad with passionate vocals and cynical lyrics ("you've got to be kidding when you say that this will last"). Indeed, even at his most laid-back Parker often seethes with a righteous anger, and the title track is another excellent example of this. "Not If It Pleases Me" is another strong effort, though its repetitive, generic chorus demonstrates a primary Parker weakness. Fortunately, this weakness is all but forgotten on the reggaefied "Don't Ask Me No Questions," which closes out this stellar debut album on a high, fueled by its dramatic intensity and Schwartz's searing rock guitar.
Heat Treatment (Polygram ’76, Vertigo/Mercury ‘01) Rating: A
Released the same year, Heat Treatment can be seen as a harder-hitting sequel to Howlin' Wind and is similarly outstanding. Often compared to fellow snarling straight shooters Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, musically Parker continues to have more in common with early Bruce Springsteen (and Bruce was a big fan of Parker) since they both deliver deceptively simple but richly detailed r&b-based melodies and passionate vocals. Plus, they’re both supported by two of the all-time great backing bands, and the Rumour again assert themselves as a gritty British counterpart to the E. Street Band. Parker’s raspy voice and indomitable spirit (“I would search the world for that fool’s gold”) make even the less outstanding songs here stand out, as do infectiously shouted choruses and the occasional solo spotlight (guitar, keyboards, and sax). More often than not Parker’s songwriting is outstanding, however, and even at his most humorous (“I didn’t pay my bill but I had my fill,” about a quickie liaison with the “Hotel Chambermaid”) Parker can’t quite hide his cynical nature. Indeed, young Graham seems quite distrustful of the opposite sex, and his “Back Door Love” is never long lasting. Thankfully, Parker’s angst has inspired his muse, and besides, the fact that songs such as "That's What They All Say" and "Fools Gold" (among others) are so soulful and melodic makes them ultimately uplifting, revealing a major talent who deserved more than a minor following. Note: The reissue includes two bonus tracks: the inessential "(Let Me Get) Sweet on You" and his excellent cover of The Trammps’ “Hold Back The Night.”
Stick To Me (Polygram ’77) Rating: B+
On the dramatic, intense title track, his hardest hitting song yet, Parker strips down his sound, but on the next song, a cover of The Trammps “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down,” he expands it. Containing the lush strings that were everywhere at the time, the song somehow still rocks, led by Parker’s venomous vocal, while "Problem Child" adds another wrinkle to Parker's repertoire, being a lightly bouncy, largely enjoyable reggae excursion. Alas, while I applaud Parker's ambition, sometimes he’s too ambitious for his own good (witness the ill-fitting female backing vocals on a couple tracks), and the songwriting is less consistent than on his superb first two albums. Still, despite containing some generic rockers ("Clear Head," "The New York Shuffle") in its mid-section, this largely overlooked album isn’t nearly as disappointing as was initially perceived upon its release. After all, "Soul On Ice" is another hard rocking (if occasionally clumsy) highlight, while songs such as “Watch The Moon Come Down” and “Thunder And Rain” are also strong efforts. The former is a slow, soulful song that features one of Parker's most passionate vocal performances, while the latter has a moody yet rocking vibe, led along by the ever-so-tight Rumour and a memorable hook on its chorus. Anyway, on most of these tracks Parker and the Rumour rock harder and more straightforwardly than ever before, with a bare bones rock n’ roll attack that relies more heavily on Brinsley Schwartz’s accomplished guitar playing than the keyboard/horn-led r&b push that was previously up front and center. Then again, "The Heat In Harlem" is an ambitious attempt at recapturing that earlier soul-based style (it's only partially successful, though I really like the extended fadeout), while horns are again prominent on "The Raid," one of the album’s weaker songs. Unfortunately, placing these two songs at the end rather than ending the album on a high as he did his previous two albums leaves a lingering impression that the album is weaker than it actually is. Truth is, a good 2/3 of this album is excellent, and though Stick To Me is surrounded by superior albums it’s still a very good album in its own right.
Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista ’79) Rating: A
Closing out Parker's golden era with another classic, Squeezing Out Sparks won many year-end critic polls for “album of the year.” Lyrically pointed (Parker tackles adult themes such as abortion and impotence in his customary no bullshit manner) and musically furious, Parker has abandoned the horns of yesteryear in favor of an even further stripped down sound (again led by Schwartz) that's best exemplified by stunningly pure rock songs such as “Discovering Japan,” “Nobody Hurts You,” and “Saturday Nite Is Dead.” Though the album runs from peak to peak, dipping only slightly towards the end, the variety that made his early albums so special is largely absent (though the catchy "Local Girls" has a '50s doo-wop feel), and again there's a little too much repetition on some of the choruses. Still, the high overall quality of these songs, as well as the band's impressive playing, easily overcomes these quibbles. After all, Parker delivers some of his best vocal performances on slow, passionate songs such as “You Can’t Be Too Strong” and “Love Gets You Twisted,” on which the Rumour again demonstrate that they have soul to spare, while "Passion Is No Ordinary Word" is another intense album highlight. Alas, with no real weak tracks to speak of, and several outstanding ones, this is the album that should’ve made Parker a huge star (actually, he should’ve already been a star), and the fact that it didn’t despite receiving excellent reviews greatly embittered him. His reputation as a cantankerous sort (with numerous record label switches) would largely overshadow his music in subsequent years (ditching the Rumour didn't help, either), and I'd recommend starting with his risk free early albums before proceeding more cautiously thereafter.
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