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Wednesday, April 4, 2007 10:15 pm

Angry young man becomes grumpy geezer

Or perhaps Graham Parker is just conflicted

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Graham Parker Don’t Tell Columbus (Bloodshot)
Untitled Document The problem with the phrases “angry young man” and “pub rock,” both of which seem to be mandatory in any discussion of Graham Parker, is not that they’re obsolete but instead that they’re meaningless. “Pub rock” was stupid from the outset, a tautological catch-all for the sort of music you might hear in English pubs during the mid-’70s, when Parker was beginning to make a name for himself. “Angry young man” was even dumber: Sure, Parker was young and often angry (he influenced the famously bilious Elvis Costello, as well as several founders of the British punk scene), but he wasn’t stuck on apoplectic. A devotee of American soul and R&B, Parker could also be melancholy, hopeful, and tender; his best songs pingponged from lacerating to loving and back again in the space of one snappy couplet. Over a career that has endured more than 30 years, the ridiculously prolific 56-year-old singer/songwriter has addressed the full range of human emotions, in all of their infinite conjunctions and irreducible complexity. No wonder he hasn’t run out of things to say. Don’t Tell Columbus, Parker’s fourth full-length for the Chicago-based Bloodshot label, is dense with pop hooks and passionate ambivalence — trademark Parker, in other words. And make no mistake: It’s very much his album. Although Ryan Barnum handles keyboards and loyal co-conspirator Mike Gent (also of the Figgs, a great band in its own right) takes care of drums, backing vocals, and the occasional guitar lead, Parker plays almost everything else, from lap-steel guitar to kazoo. A mixture of anthemic folk-rock and rawboned R&B, the songs have a slippery, expansive quality, a tendency to unfurl in unexpected ways. The moody midtempo rocker “England’s Latest Clown” at first seems to be about British tabloid target Pete Doherty, but, in typical Parker fashion, the subject of the satire isn’t quite so clear-cut. Toward the end of the song, Parker’s pitiless lens pans out to expose the greater absurdity: “We want to see him strung out, we want to see him thin/We want to see somebody dig a hole and bury him. . . . /We wish he was dead already, and we wish we were him.”
Other tracks blur the line between the personal and the universal. The eight-minute epic “The Other Side of the Reservoir” is both an elegy for a drowned meadow and an unwritten letter to an ex-lover. In “Suspension Bridge,” a sinewy minor-key ballad with a vaguely Middle Eastern feel, Parker jumps from a pleasant childhood memory of standing on a bridge with his father to a meditation on mortality and our essential solitude: “Not in one world or another,” he sings. “I’ve got no sister, and I’ve got no brother.” “Bullet of Redemption,” one of several overtly Dylanesque tracks on the album, is a lovely paradox, one part curse and one part benediction. Like all the best metaphors, the titular bullet can’t be explained away; it misses its mark, ricochets, scatters signifiers like buckshot. Of course, there’s more than enough acrimony to maintain Parker’s angry-young-man credentials. The sardonic sing-along “Ambiguous” lampoons the apathetic American electorate, and the snarling blues-shuffle “Stick to the Plan” takes on everything from global-warming deniers to the war on terror. The surf-rock seether “Love or Delusion,” a kind of anti-love song, describes “a system so advanced that it runs on blood and works by chance.” But the vitriol is tempered by “Somebody Saved Me” and “All Being Well,” two unapologetically romantic songs whose sweetness squelches any lingering traces of acid. Maybe Parker deserves a more accurate title after all these years. How about “brilliantly conflicted geezer”? Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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