Graded on a Curve: Graham Parker & the Rumour, Three Chords Good

While he experienced much success in the ‘80s and beyond, these days Graham Parker’s best work is widely considered to be the fine run of albums he recorded in the mid/late-‘70s with The Rumour, a group of pub rock vets that helped propel the singer-songwriter into the company of Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and the young Joe Jackson as a direct, classicist (and UK-based) breath of fresh musical air. They’re back together again after a 30-plus year break with Three Chords Good. It’s a solid if modest success, mainly because its attitudes regarding the past and the present are kept in proper balance.

Graham Parker was a smart lyricist, a strong vocalist, a generous bandleader, and his influences were generally impeccable; as a result he became a critic’s fave in an era that frequently jettisoned such artists to the cut-out bins, though happily the man accumulated a large enough following to avoid being labeled as a commercial casualty.

If Parker had the songs and the attitude, The Rumour’s pub rock pedigree proved key in bringing it all to fruition. Guitarist Brinsley Schwarz and keyboardist Bob Andrews had previously been members (along with Nick Lowe) of the band Brinsley Schwarz, a terrific outfit if one cursed by record label hype, sort of the UK equivalent to San Francisco’s Moby Grape. Brinsley Schwarz was the forerunner of such pub rock staples as Dr. Feelgood and Ducks Deluxe, a group that included Rumour guitarist Martin Belmont.

Additionally, drummer Steve Goulding and bassist Andrew Bodnar had worked in the band Bontemps Roulez, and the Rumour Horns rounded out what was much more than just a backing band. For The Rumour released three pretty swell if not earth shattering albums of their own, starting with ‘77’s Max for Phonogram and followed by a pair for Stiff, ‘79’s Frog Sprouts Clogs and Krauts and ‘80’s covers heavy Purity of Essence.

That association with Stiff, a link that was strengthened by the inclusion of Parker’s “Back to Schooldays” on the truly killer A Bunch of Stiff Records compilation from ’77, brought some comparisons to punk rock, but history has shown this to be somewhat of a reach. Parker and the Rumour were surely stripped down in contrast to the more heinous goings on of the era, but they utilized reliably impeccable musicianship in service of a distinct goal; not to kick things over and start from scratch but to simply get the good stuff back in the limelight. The richness of Van Morrison, the sound of American soul, and the lyrical acumen of Dylan were all arrows in Parker’s quiver; if occasionally dubbed an angry young man, he ultimately wasn’t a disrupter but a corrector of rock’s missteps.

And if Parker is best remembered for his work with The Rumour, then his most highly regarded LP from that period is ‘79’s Squeezing out Sparks. Sure, some advocate for the superbly balanced qualities of the first two, Howlin’ Wind and Heat Treatment, released mere months apart in ’76. Others, this writer included, love the more ragged aura of the hastily recorded Stick to Me from ’77. But Sparks was the record that brought him his biggest audience without sacrificing potency, a Top Twenty album in his home country, and the first of two Top Forty showings in the States, a disc that was adored in equal measure by New Wavers and acolytes of Springsteen.

Squeezing out Sparks makes an interesting contrast with the freshly released Three Chords Good, which finds Parker reuniting with the full membership of The Rumour for the first time since 1980’s The Up Escalator. For starters, its jacket presents an informal photo of the entire band, an interesting new twist, for three of the five records upon which their joint rep rests found Parker alone on the cover.

For that matter, Squeezing out Sparks didn’t even credit The Rumour on its front, likely an executive decision, but one that still sets up a sharp distinction with Three Chords Good, where it seems that Parker has come to acknowledge that those initial albums with a specific group of highly talented counterparts added up to a very special sum, one that at three decades remove continues to be the best part of his legacy. But there is one recurring motif at least, specifically Parker’s longstanding fashion maneuver of sporting suit coats over t-shirts. It’s nice to know some things don’t change.

If Squeezing out Sparks is basically Parker’s definitive statement as an angry young man, attempting to recapture or approximate its substance in the present would’ve been a grave mistake. Thankfully Three Chords Good doesn’t err in this direction, making no bones about the fact that it’s an LP by some wily cats with a ton of experience under their collective belts. Again, that cover photo is some potent truth in advertizing, seeming to boast that no one involved with its making has been carded for beer since Gerald Ford took his first stumble down the steps of Air Force One.

So, this isn’t six guys refusing to grow up, but rather out to prove that growing older hasn’t erased their ability to make quality music in the tradition from where they sprang. And maybe the most immediately noticeable difference is in how much Parker’s voice has changed. Where he was once somewhat comparable to Costello, though a stronger natural singer with some of the attributes of the young Van Morrison, on Three Chords Good he’s positively and proudly grizzled, coming off not unlike Vic Chesnutt, a singer that often sounded older than his years, though the attitude and delivery here are still pure Parker.

This development adds a very welcome wrinkle to the smooth reggae-rock of opener “Snake Oil Capital of the World,” joining with the grouchiness of the lyrics to provide the song with necessary bite. When Parker executed a move like this in his earlier work, say the title track to Howlin’ Wind, he had the verve of youth on his side and the fact that few others were working similar territory.

Now it sounds like he’s trying to extend his personal program of later-age rocking beyond the trap of mere pleasantries. But importantly, it’s a gesture from Parker that’s not overstated; he seems perfectly accepting of the circumstances of this stage of his tenure, not straining to prove his relevance in a musical landscape that’s much different from the one that fostered him, but also unwilling to blindly follow the late-career conventions that so often produce faulty facsimiles of prior vigor.

And the next track “Long Emotional Ride” is basically a lyrical summation of Three Chords Good’s whole raison d’être; to reflect and adapt, to rejoin forces, and make a worthwhile statement of perseverance. Parker and the whole band acquit themselves like the right kind of pros, and while the music doesn’t challenge any conventions, it goes down nice and easy. I’ll bet some will hear it and grump that it’s Middle of the Road, but it’s not hard to surmise that those naysayers never liked Parker, Lowe, Costello and Co much anyway.

Again, those gents helped define the middle-space between the unruliness of punk and the increasingly stultifying strains of the status quo way back then. With that said “Stop Crying About the Rain” might be a little too pleasant for its own good. There’s a fine line between the acceptable aura of MOR and the execution of well intentioned insubstantiality, and this song treads closer to the later than the former. But Parker imbues it with better than average writing and the band remains committed, so the dangers are only flirted with, not fully tackled. “She Rocks Me” rights the ship with an innocuous bit of lite-soul that’s succeeds through nonchalant brio. Well, that and an unexpected kazoo solo.

The title track gets to the meat of the matter, however. Its mid-tempo pop-rocking begins unfussily enough, but the appeal builds through natural energy and inspiration. It’s not going to blow any minds, but that’s not the intention. And while the bluesy “Old Soul” can’t help but bring to mind the two-drink minimum of an upscale jazz club, it doesn’t overreach for ambiance; the agedness in Parker’s voice is enough, and it’s enhanced by The Rumour’s abilities as studio perfectionists.

“A Lie Gets Halfway ‘Round the World” picks up the pace just when it’s needed. The playing is crisp and clean, with Andrews’ organ a particular standout (as it is across the whole album), assertive but well placed in the scheme of things. And Parker is up to the tempo, particularly because he has some stuff on his mind. Frankly, Three Chords Good would’ve benefited from a few more songs of this nature, but something tells me unabashed rockers aren’t flowing from Parker’s pen these days.

“That Moon Was Low” follows, and is a little gem of a song, part non-crap country and part classic-pop song craft. It’s not hard to imagine it performed in the style of doo wop, but here it’s given an understated acoustic reading in keeping with the record’s objectives. In another time and divorced from the slightly idiosyncratic nature of Parker’s current voice the tune could’ve been a hit, but the time is now, and without those vocals “The Moon is Low” would be far less worthy.

“Live in Shadows” works through shifts in tempo and impressive musicality to produce one of the record’s stronger numbers, and Parker achieves a lot while remaining well grounded. He’s never been a show-off and it’s clear he’s not about to start now. “Arlington’s Busy” begins the record’s closing trifecta of socially motivated tunes, this one an anti-war piece clearly inspired by Dylan but musically much more in accord with the disciples of Bob’s old associates, The Band. It’s tasteful stuff to be sure, but not to the point that it loses its soul. And if Parker’s pissed he’s not making a big overblown show of it.

Some might disagree about “Coathangers,” which tackles a certain reproductive rights issue with the record’s biggest dose of pure vitriol. But I don’t. He seems disgusted, and I can relate. And it’s nice to see the guy move into the autumn of his career with an attitude unsullied with reactionary conservatism. And most importantly, the song rocks.

The crotchetiness of closer “Last Bookstore in Town” shouldn’t be taken at face value, for its barbed disses toward the musty atmospheres and increasingly marginalized literary interests of second-hand book culture are ironically intended in the mode of prime Randy Newman. This is smart. To simply grumble about the sometimes destructive side-effects of the internet’s ubiquitous presence would be too easy a gesture and one potentially unproductive for an older guy speaking his mind in a public forum. Get off my lawn, y’know? And Parker’s description of used-book haunts register as quite familiar to this writer, the song wrapping up the album on a very strong note, and with more of that left field kazoo.

Three Chords Good is a surprising if minor album, a definite keeper if not a masterpiece, and in plain terms it’s not the place for a Parker newbie to start. The way to begin is with the original stuff with The Rumour, natch. Grab a copy of Squeezing out Sparks and work backward, and if all that makes a positive impression, then by all means proceed to this new one. It’ll impress with some fine tunes, a strong creative spirit and maybe most of all, the healthiness of the whole endeavor.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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