Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Graham Parker & The Rumour "Three Chords Good" (4.5*)

The cynics among us would probably be inclined to ascribe the reunion of Graham Parker and his original band the Rumour for the first time in thirty-one years to pecuniary mercenary motives but it seems we’re looking at a rather remarkable slice of serendipity.

Parker has worked, on and off, with various members of his old band over the years, presumably on the basis of what felt right and who was available at that particular time, and with Three Chords Good’s dozen tracks written Parker apparently decided bassist Andrew Bodnar and drummer Steve Goulding would be really something as the rhythm section on the new album. Goulding suggested bringing guitarists Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont and keyboard ace Bob Andrews aboard as well and without any prior planning there’s a full-blown Graham Parker & The Rumour reunion.

That was May 2011, and the recording, produced by Parker and Dave Cook and cut in upstate New York was finished by August. At that point, movie writer/director/producer Judd Apatow turned up on Parker’s doorstep with the offer of a role in his new film, This Is 40, a comedy that updates the story of the duo from 2007‘s Knocked Up and features Parker, cast as himself, performing in a duo and with the Rumour.

The sessions for Three Chords Good and their spell on the set of This Is 40 also provide also provide a dramatic climax for the Gramaglia Brothers’ (End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones) feature-length documentary Don’t Ask Me Questions, a profile of Parker’s career that’s been ten years in the making.

It’s been twenty years since Parker recorded for a major label, but he’s spent the intervening period in DIY cottage industry mode, releasing a string of albums and official bootlegs and a book of short fiction (Carp Fishing on Valium) all of which feature the man’s pissed-off snarl and cynical attitude, which comes straight into play on the opening track here.

Snake Oil Capital Of The World appropriates the intro to Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions, arguably Parker’s best known track, and pursues that loping reggae-derived groove through a fittingly trenchant diagnosis of what’s going down in twenty-first century America, pointing out that the old, weird America (the one of medicine shows, snake oil salesmen, carnival barkers and opportunistic carpetbaggers) never went anywhere.

It’s the sort of thing that would have had the younger Parker seething, but as he points out on the following track the thirty-plus years since he came to prominence have been a Long Emotional Ride (Maybe I’m just getting old or something/But something broke down my resistance) so despite the fact that he sees snake oil everywhere he realises there isn’t a whole lot he can do about it.

Long Emotional Ride has a fair dose of the confessional about it as Parker looks back on his career and notes recently acquired wisdom with a degree of wistfulness and a rough-hewn tenderness that runs on into Stop Cryin’ About The Rain. The totally self-explanatory She Rocks Me works a snappy semi-skiffle groove while Three Chords Good would have fitted comfortably on any of those earlier GP&R albums. There’s a touch of Mose Allison to leaven the Van Morrison influences on the slower, moody Old Soul, a track that swings sensuously with Bob Andrews’ Hammond B-3 organ to the fore (as it is throughout).

Andrews is there again on A Lie Gets Halfway ‘Round The World, a track that shows Parker can still rant with the best of them, Mercury Poisoning revisited while he takes aim at the music industry and the mainstream media again. There’s a touch of the doo-wops and Sam Cooke about That Moon Was Low and we’re into boppier territory for Live In Shadows before the trio of tracks that take the album out with a definite bang.

America’s role in Afghanistan and the apathy that has come as the conflict grinds on gets the once-over in Arlington’s Busy (And Arlington's busy and business is brisk, not that you'd notice ‘cos ignorance is bliss) a bristling track that decries lying military officers and politicians in a measured statement of impassioned disgust. Coathangers shows whose side of the abortion debate he’s on and manages to rock out while it does so, and Last Bookstore In Town delivers a wry commentary on the decline of small town niche businesses.

The Parker who emerged from obscurity and a string of dead end jobs in the Channel Islands, Chichester and Gibraltar and a hippy band that gigged in a Moroccan night club was in many ways a reincarnation of the ’50s English Angry Young Man, articulate, antiestablishment and extremely pissed off at the world in general and his social circumstances in particular. The Rumour, a collection of pub rock veterans who’d been around the ridges long enough to know what worked and what didn’t locked right in behind him to provide a worthy antidote to the increasing blandness and orthodoxy of mid-seventies rock.

Thirty-odd years after The Up Escalator it’s good to see the combination back as a unit, with Bob Andrews behind the keyboards (he’d left before Escalator and been replaced by Nicky Hopkins and the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan). Given their circumstances over the intervening decades (Brinsley Schwarz had been working as a luthier in London, while fellow guitarist Martin Belmont was a Yorkshire librarian) you mightn’t be expecting the old fires to burn quite so bright but taste and an understanding of nuance are timeless and one suspects it’s something like learning to ride a bicycle.

Once you know how, the ability doesn’t desert you.

Parker’s lyrics still bite and there’s a hint of the old snarl, though the anger’s tempered by a curmudgeonly resignation, Andrews’ keyboards weave their way through the melodies, the guitars add crunch and the supple rhythm section sets things up just right.

The result is an album that hearkens back to a pretty damn glorious past, delivers a continuation of the old vibe into the present and leaves this long time fan hoping for more of the same in the future.

That may end up being a case of living in hope and dying in frustration but, in the meantime, at least I’ve got Three Chords Good, a reinvigorated interest in past glories and an inclination to catch ip on what I’ve missed in the interim.

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