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Graham Parker
Acid Bubblegum,  Razor & Tie CD RT2826-2

Graham does not sell out

When Graham Parker’s latest work started out with a simple synthesizer riff, I started to worry. Parker has been a favorite of mine since his 1976 Mercury debut  Howlin’ Wind. A biting piece of pub rock,  Wind was produced by Nick Lowe and backed by the Rumour, a consortium of former members of Ducks Deluxe and Brinsley Schwartz.  Heat Treatment followed within a year, and it seemed a major new voice in blue-eyed R&B was emerging. But his career fizzled, largely the result of shabby treatment by his label. Two forgettable albums got him out of that contract, with the bitterness memorialized in "Mercury Poisoning." His 1979 Arista debut,  Squeezing out Sparks, was arguably his best work, a commercial and artistic success. But somehow, Parker never managed to make the leap into mainstream success.

For the past decade and a half, he’s released a series of critically well-received albums that have disappeared with barely a commercial ripple. Parker’s always been a sharp songwriter, with a tongue that matches. When well-targeted, he’s funny and bitter at the same time. At other times, as in "Soul Seduction," he seems strident, with a tin ear for American cultural sensibilities. A white British guy has to be very careful about even well-intentioned use of the term "nigger," John Lennon and Elvis Costello not withstanding. Despite these qualms, a Graham Parker album is always well anticipated, and he rarely disappoints.

Still, that synthesizer bothered me. Halfway through that opening song, I realized my fears were groundless. "Turn it into Hate" is a rocking little number, railing against the Gulf War patriotic fervor and U.S. cultural hegemony. Standard punk protest, but the Parker punch prevails. The rest CD is filled with similarly tight, quick, well written tunes. Though no longer close to being young, he’s still very much an the angry man. Witness "Obsessed with Aretha," an attack on late-period Aretha Franklin for turning her back on her soul roots, a capital crime in this man’s book. Joe Camel gets his knocks (admittedly an easy target), as does the tomahawk chopping Jane Fonda.

The adult Graham Parker is a reliable tunesmith, with an emerging lyrical maturity. Anyone who tries to write a popular song based on the term ‘chitinous bugs’ is all right in my book. Musically, there are certainly a lot of parallels to Elvis Costello. Both artists have a knack for recycling bits and pieces of our pop history into valuable new materials. Parker draws from a somewhat narrower base, sticking pretty close to the wealth of material from American R&B.  Bubblegum Acid also features several of the chugging ballads that are another Parker trademark. And while nothing reaches the sublime magic of  Sparks’ "You Can’t Be Too Strong," "She Never Let Me Down" approaches it.

The band is sturdy, if unremarkable. Parker’s guitar work has improved markedly, and is now somewhat reminiscent of the choppy tones Mark Knopfler coaxes so wonderfully from his axe. "Baggage" is another improvement, with a driving reggae groove more sophisticated and subtle than earlier pieces like "Back Door Love" or "Fools’ Gold." At same time, there seem to be no more wildman rockers like "Back to Schooldays."

With  Bubblegum Acid, Graham Parker has once again scored. It seems to be the case these days that any artist that sticks around long enough eventually reaches a level of acclaim. Parker has certainly paid his dues (the liner notes claim production by Desperate "Career" Moves). Perhaps the sheer weight of accumulated evidence will someday be enough to push him into the spotlight. This CD counts as yet another worthy contribution toward that end.–  Bill Kuhn


Graham Parker, Vocals and guitars; Adrian Bodner, Bass; Gart Burker, Drums, Percussion; Jimmy Destri, Keyboards.

Copyright © 1997 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.