Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When I Was King / Graham Parker

We're long past due for a Graham Parker post, my friends and faithful readers.

The Graham Parker world has been buzzing lately over two groundbreaking pieces of news.  Firstly, Graham has reunited with his old backing band, The Rumour, for a new album entitled (don't you love it?) Three Chords Good.  And as if that weren't enough, long-time Parker fan and film director Judd Apatow has tapped GP and the Rumour to appear in his new film, a sequel to Knocked Up starring Paul Rudd, set to be released in December 2012 (if we can wait that long!). Is that cool or what?

Now, anyone who knows how funny Graham can be should know that he's just been waiting for an opportunity like this to shine on camera. I predict that he's about to experience a truly epic (and long overdue) career revival. A year from now everyone will be claiming to be Parkeristas, just like everyone this fall claims to be a Nick Lowe fan.  Here's your chance to be ahead of the curve and get hip to Graham Parker before the masses move in.

You'll find this track on 1991's Struck By Lightning, which just may be my favorite Graham Parker album ever.  (And that's going some.) Side note:  The Rumour's Andrew Bodnar plays bass on this album, and Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello's Attractions is the drummer.  The Band's Garth Hudson and the Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian sit in on a few tracks as well -- not too shabby, eh?

Back in 1979, when Squeezing Out Sparks gave Graham Parker and the Rumour their biggest US success, they pretty much were kings.  By 1991, that was well in Graham's past -- but does he sound bitter or regretful?  No way.  In fact, he seems to have all the confidence of an artist who knows he's doing his best work ever, whether or not the world is listening. (I wasn't even listening in 1991 -- it took me years to rediscover Graham Parker.)

"When I was king," he muses, "I was not really the man I am now."  There's just a whiff of satire to that rising melody, the mock stately rhythm lagging behind the beat with noblesse oblige. And the trappings of royalty -- or of pop success -- are almost laughably ephemeral:  a "throne of china," a crown fit only to be melted down "to sell as scrap." But being a king is a sort of trap, too:  "But they'd run the first run of stamps / People had cashed in their post office savings / To buy some and lick the back of my neck."  It's deliciously absurd, but poignant all the same. The coronation happens anyway, and in a sort of fairy-tale reality, he finds himself ruling over "some green and pleasant land / With a frog and a princess, not necessarily in that order." 

"I didn't want to be king anyway," Graham protests; "I always preferred to hang out with the servants."  I love that line; to me, that epitomizes the common-man approach that makes Graham Parker's work so special.  Posturing and pretension have never been his thing. (Bruce Springsteen has spent his career trying to convey the same real-guy honesty; I never buy it from him, but from Graham I do, one hundred percent.)

And after all, what would be the point of being king?  "When I was king," he continues in the third verse, "there was no country left to rule / Jesters and fools were leaders / All of them a royal pain." (How could he resist a pun like that?)  Too late, perhaps, he realizes he has to get back on top: "Now I'm a serf / But I'm still trying to be a king  . . .  I'll have to assassinate someone / With a guitar as a gun."

"Oh, it's good to be a king," he'll admit.  (Who can forget Mel Brooks' classic line from History of the World Part One -- "It's good to be the king.") "I know that I've been there / Many, many, many, many kingdoms ago..."  Fashions in pop music come and go, and being yesterday's hit-maker means nothing today.  There's definitely something wistful about this sweet, soaring melody, but he's not weighed down with regret; it's the way of the world, and he can take it in stride.

But let's think -- who were the hitmakers in 1991?  Nirvana and Pearl Jam were signaling the rise of grunge, while Guns 'n' Roses was unseating Metallica.  R.E.M. and U2 were already peaking (though both continued to release music for many more years).  Bryan Adams, Michael Jackson, Phil Collins, and Michael Bolton ruled the charts; Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the Divinyl's "I Touch Myself" filled the airwaves.  So who was ever going to notice a stripped-down, folk-inflected album like Struck By Lightning?

On the other hand, who noticed the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society album in 1968?  The satire and lyrical tenderness of that album was out of step with the times, just as Struck By Lightning was out of step with 1991.  But here's the thing about truly great albums: When you finally discover them, they seem as fresh as yesterday.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


There are two artists in my archives who regularly reduce me to tears:  Joe Jackson and Ben Folds. I don't know why that is, although the fact that both are stellar pianists may have something to do with it.   I've had Ben mightily on my mind recently, having just received his new retrospective box set, The Best Imitation of Myself (Jesus, this guy is good.)  But for some reason it was this already-covered Joe Jackson song that dominated my brain today.  Who knows why -- like the Wizard of Oz, I don't know how it works.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Blue Flame / Joe Jackson

Volume 4 is such a superb album. I’m not just talking musically, though it's an exquisite fusion of rock and jazz and Latin music and cabaret and everything else. But what really takes my breath away is how Joe Jackson's songwriting has matured – those melancholy melodies, the poetic imagery of the lyrics, the psychological depth of the storytelling. Music for grown-ups, again -- and you know how I love that.

I realize I’ve already worked over “Awkward Age” and “Love At First Light”; now add “Blue Flame” to the list of songs from this 2003 album that completely wrench my heart.

He wastes no time, but plunges right in, mid-conversation: “I’ve got some walls around me too / But they’re not much, compared to your house / Fifty feet high, with barbed wire / Guards on the top, aiming rifles at your lovers one by one / And friends too.” Don’t you just know people like that? And the way that melody meanders in and out of minor keys, piano chords hanging unresolved, the drumbeat clicking along – it’s so wistful, so sorrowful, you have to take it seriously.  Maybe this is the secret of Joe Jackson's emotional power: those risk-taking melodies, leaping all over the keyboard.  Who can resist?

“I’ve come with hands above my head,” he declares, carrying on the metaphor, but he’s honest about his own hang-ups: “But I’m damned if I’ll try to break your door down / If you ever come out, just call me / I’ll still be armed with the memory of one evening when you smiled / At something.” It’s so little to go on, but at a certain point in our lives we realize that may be all there is. Taking a risk gets so damn hard – but NOT taking the risk, that’s death.

Yes, this hoped-for lover is a hard case – “You tell me women get you down / And as for men, well they’re all bastards / I wonder what world you call home,” he mutters, shaking his head. Later, he can’t resist an edgy snipe: “Yes, it was nice to see you too / Although I’m never sure you mean it.” Yes, he can see  his would-be lover’s faults, perfectly clearly. Leading into the second chorus, he’s talking as much to himself as to his lover when he remarks, “Bitterness is a black hole.” But somebody has to bend.

So why is this lover worth pursuing? In the chorus, he shifts gears to confess that there is another side: “There’s a blue flame inside of you, so beautiful and rare / Love’s not something we decide to do / You’d be so hard to love / If love was not just . . . there.” There's the heartbreaking nub of it.  Of course; they're already entangled, more than either of them can afford to admit. Who ever said love was easy?

And we have NO idea how this affair will turn out. If a happy ending is what you’re hanging around for, prepare to be disappointed. The romantic and the realist in Joe Jackson are always locked in their hopeless dance; neither one will ever win. That’s the world according to Joe Jackson . . . and it pierces my heart, every time.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sensitive Man / Nick Lowe

If you've been living in a cave for the past month or so . . . you may not have heard that Nick Lowe has a new album out.  The rest of us, we've been witnessing a barrage of press coverage, adulatory reviews, radio appearances, and other coronation-type events heralding the September release of The Old Magic.  Suddenly, it's okay to like Nick Lowe all over again.

I will refrain from asking where all those newly-minted Nick Lowe fans were six years ago, when he hadn't released an album in 4 years and I couldn't find his older CDs anywhere.  Now the old stuff's being re-released (Jesus of Cool and Labour of Lust have gotten the royal re-issue treatment so far, and more are bound to come), along with a 2-disc best-of compilation (Quiet Please) and the boxed set The Brentford Trilogy, that conveniently bundles the three late-90s-early-00s albums wherein he reinvented himself as an older-but-wiser country crooner. Buy, buy, buy!!

Well, I'm a little conflicted -- I'm not sure I'm ready to share Nick with the masses -- though once he's no longer the Flavor of the Month, things will no doubt cool down.  While we're waiting, we can quietly enjoy this album for what it is:  Not the capstone of a storied career, but simply another immensely pleasurable outing by an old dog who still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Several of these songs -- including "I Read A Lot" -- I first heard months ago in concert, when Nick was trying them out on the road.  It's hard for me to recapture how riveted I was, hearing them for the first time.  So until I've properly digested the album as a whole, let me just share with you one new-to-me delight.

From those very first brightly chattering piano chords (the ever sublime Geraint Watkins!), this song ticks along, upbeat and sly.   As Nick happily tells any interviewer who asks, his songs aren't autobiographical, but he certainly does seem fond of adopting the character of a Clueless Loser. In this case, the woebegone fella is baffled to notice a new distance in his lover.  (Shades of last album's "People Change" -- "and you don't know what you've done / Or even how to make it right").  He's picking up various signs, all right -- how she pulls away from his embrace, the looks she shoots across the room -- but he still has no idea what's bugging her. "I know that something is amiss, / But what it is, you won't say," he laments. Just come out and tell me, babe -- don't make me guess! 

All he knows is that he's feeling rebuffed:  "But how can I face it, standing out here in the cold? / I'm a sensitive man." ("Don't freeze me, baby," he begs in the second verse; "you can hear that midnight song," he adds woefully.)  Of course he's wounded and stung, because he's such a sensitive man. ("Though first impressions might steer you wrong," he admits -- he's so misunderstood!) I love the chorus here:  "I'm a sensitive man," he insists, while his mates chime in with doleful "ohhs." And in the coda:  "Sen-sitive man!  Out in the cold! / Sensitive man / Tryin' to do good." Poor baby!

This is a real Mars-and-Venus moment, isn't it?  When we women gush about how sensitive a man is, it's because (we hope) he can read our moods, anticipate our desires, and -- oh, yes -- put himself in our shoes and avoid pissing us off in the first place.  Nick's narrator, though, is sensitive in an entirely different meaning:  easily hurt and prone to brooding.  Put the two together and -- OUCH!!!  

Speaking strictly from a female point of view, I can guess that this guy did something colossally stupid. (Like maybe he FORGOT HER BIRTHDAY?!!!)  And the last thing she wants is to have to spell it out for him.  But he's so obtuse, even when she drops hints all over the place, they shoot right over his head.  MEN!!!

On the other hand -- okay, okay -- maybe this song is about how women over-complicate every emotional situation, and how hard it is for men to navigate those treacherous waters.  Who knows?  It's done with such a light touch, either or both readings are possible.  Nick's pulled off this sort of tease before -- like in "All Men Are Liars," where he simultaneously lambasts the male sex and mocks women who rag on men.

As usual, his delivery is spot-on: Just a few pauses and ironic vocal flourishes to let us in on the joke. There's just a whisper of cheesiness in that cocktail lounge piano, the back-up crooners, the bleating Bacharach-style horns in the middle eight.  Nick can break your heart with regret if he wants to: elsewhere on The Old Magic, for example, with the tender "Stoplight Roses" or the rueful "House For Sale."  But that's not what he's after here. This track is way too bouncy for regret, as our hapless narrator (not Nick, remember!) pouts and scratches his head.

Talk about word play -- forget the puns and double entendres that used to riddle Nick Lowe's lyrics, now he can write an entire song about the conflicting messages contained in one simple phrase.  That, my friends, is the mark of a master wordsmith.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Columbus Day Shuffle

Doncha just love 3-day weekends?  Started out with my birthday on Saturday, then John Lennon's birthday yesterday, and now we have yet another day to chill and hang out.  Time for music!

1. Fourth of July / Dave Alvin
From King of California (1994)
Another lonesome, plangent tune by the wonderful Dave Alvin, the King of Downey, California. Dave Alvin seems to have a pipeline into the weary lives of working-class Westerners.  "On the stairs I smoke a cigarette alone / Mexican kids are shooting fireworks below" -- shoot this in black-and-white and you'd have a California version of The Last Picture Show.  Devastatingly sad and tender, great stuff.

2. Rockin' the Suburbs / Ben Folds
From Rockin' the Suburbs (2001)
From the authentic to the deliciously snarky in one fell swoop. "Let me tell y'all what it's like / Being male, middle-class and white...All alone in my white-boy pain / Shake your booty while the band complains."  And those perky synths -- skewer 'em, Ben!

3. Don't Lose Your Grip on Love / Brinsley Schwarz
From Nervous on the Road (1972)
Authentic at one remove, the Brinsleys channel the Band, with Bob Andrews doing a quite respectable Garth Hudson homage.  They almost get it right -- "Why do you despise this travelin' man? /  Even though he's doing the best that he can" -- until Nick Lowe betrays his English boarding school roots: "Working for peanuts, as is his wont --"  SCREECH! Gotta love it. This is the same man who rhymes "bona fide" with "coincide" in "Cruel to be Kind," or who describes himself as "a feckless man" in "Hope For Us All" -- he's an English major's dream.  Well, this English major's dream, anyway...

4. Sole Salvation / The English Beat
From Special Beat Service (1982)
Oooh, great sax, and those earnest Dave Wakeling vocals -- these guys never fail to please. The ska revival of the early 80s was right up my alley; I fell in love with the Specials first, but the English Beat kicked in right after, adding a little pop honey to the mix.  Yeah, it's Sole Salvation or Soul Salvation, whichever you want, the groove goes on.       

5.  Shting Shtang / Nick Lowe
From Party of One (1989)
There are days when this neglected beauty is my favorite Nick Lowe album, even this throwaway rockabilly riffer.  These guys are just having so damn much fun -- who needs Rockpile?

6. The Story's Over / The Lodger
From Grown-Ups (2006)
I think iTunes is prejudiced towards this indie-pop band from Leeds, because their music cycles up SO OFTEN on my shuffle, even though I only have five tracks downloaded. (Thanks, Justin.) Not that that's a bad thing -- their stuff's fun. 

7. Eine Kleine Middle Klasse Musik / The Rutles
From Archaeology (1996)
The brilliant Neil Innes (he of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band) masterminded the Beatles parody The Rutles, along with ex-Python Eric Idle; a few years later, when the Beatles Anthology was all over the place, Neil jumped in with this wonderful take-off of Sgt. Pepper's. Except that it's not really a take-off, IMHO, just extending the Beatles' legacy with all the songs they would have written if they had had time.   

8. Back on My Feet / Al Kooper
From New York City (You're A Woman) (1971)
I am absolutely always delighted when an Al Kooper track cycles up on the old shuffle.  The first true rock chicks I ever knew -- two girls who called themselves Toots and Babs -- turned me onto this stuff at yearbook camp when I was maybe 15, and it runs insanely deep in my musical DNA.  (The full story here.) Truly, it's like going home for me.  I have a huge grin on my face right now. 

9. Loaded  / The Wood Brothers
From Loaded (2008)
You really must, really must, listen to the Wood Brothers.  Please? I just found them by accident and they're one of my great discoveries: I love them madly.  Put together blues and folk and jazz, and mix it up with top-drawer musicianship and mesmerizing vocals and sharp songwriting -- well, what's not to like? 

10. Space Oddity / David Bowie
From Space Oddity (1969)
Sigh.  One of the greatest tracks ever.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Shattered / The Rolling Stones

Now it's my Windows Movie Maker that's gone haywire -- the program I use to make videos so you can listen to the music I write about.  I swear, will the technical difficulties ever end?  These days I have a hard enough time getting time to blog anyway, without having to devote 2 hours to decoding tech issues. 

Blogger is probably punishing me for not switching to its updated interface.  Well, I tried it, and I see nothing about the new interface that improves my blogging experience whatsoever.  It's like making me switch versions of Word (and all along I still wish Microsoft hadn't driven WordPerfect out of the market!).  Now, I'm no Luddite -- just today I tried out a new GPS device that is not a Garmin system, and I loved my new and improved navigation experience. But when something isn't broken, I hate having someone else decide it's time to fix it.  Does the latest version of iTunes really matter?  

So once again I have to fall back on You Tube:

Mind you, after listening to this song about 50 times trying to get it downloaded, I'm not sure I like it anymore.  Well, "like" is probably the wrong verb anyway.  I listened to Some Girls a LOT when it first came out in 1978; I'd just moved to Manhattan, and this song encapsulated all the frustrations I felt, learning how to deal with the Big Bad Apple.  I shared a shabby apartment in a fringe neighborhood, rode a filthy graffiti-covered subway train to work, and climbed up out of the subway every morning in Times Square (the old nasty Times Square, not Mayor Bloomberg's sparkling new Times Square Mall).  So it was oddly comforting to listen to the relentlessly chugging rhythm track of this song, and hear Mick's campy yelps of outrage.

Among the lines that have always stayed with me:

All this chitter chatter, chitter chatter, chitter chatter
'Bout schmatte schmatte schmatte, 
I can't give it away on Seventh Avenue. 

Don't you know the crime rate's going up up up up up
To live in this town, you must be tough tough tough tough tough tough tough

Rats on the West Side, bed bugs uptown
What a mess, this town's in tatters

This town's full of money grabbers
Go ahead, bite the Big Apple
Don't mind the maggots 

Don't you just love how opportunistic Jagger's lyrics are?  He'll say anything if it rhymes, or even if it kinda rhymes.  It's just brilliant dumb luck that those rhymes come off as insightful and impressionistic. 

There's no melody to speak of, and the only interesting instrumentation is in the bridge, where Keith rips off several of his own old riffs.  If I were really a Stones fan, I'm sure I could identify them. (If he played the riff from "You Really Got Me," I'd know that . . . ) And yet -- well, this is a supremely fun song. 

This is the last album, in fact,  where I really felt that the Stones were having any fun at all. From there on, it always just seemed like they had to grind out music to keep their enormous enterprise afloat. Mind you, I haven't listened seriously to anything after Tattoo You, but there's only so much time in the world.

But hey, I could be wrong.