Sunday, October 07, 2007

Graham Parker in Japan

I bought Graham Parker's Live Alone! Discovering Japan a few years back mostly because I wanted one song (“Watch the Moon Come Down”), listened to the record once or twice, decided I wasn't really all that wild about Graham Parker, and stuck it in a box. There it stayed until I started hearing the same song in my head again and disinterred the CD from its resting place in my basement. I figured I'd copy that one cut to my hard drive and be done with it, but just out of curiosity I played the whole thing once through. Now I've been listening to it repeatedly for a couple of weeks, and enjoying it a great deal. I don't think the record has changed much, so it must be me.

Parker has made a lot of records, most of which I've never heard, and is probably better known for working with a band than as a solo act. He gets lumped together with Elvis Costello as one of the Angry Young Men of 1970s British rock. The similarities are there — they're both gifted melodic songwriters with a sardonic sense of humor — but Parker has stayed closer to his musical roots; you can't really imagine him crooning Burt Bacharach tunes. That may be part of the reason why Elvis Costello is more or less a household name, at least to anyone under sixty, and why Graham Parker isn't.

This CD was recorded in Tokyo sometime in the early '90s. The crowd — mostly male from the sound of it — is rowdy and responsive, and evidently familiar with his songbook. Although there were reportedly some technical problems with the recording, the end result sounds quite good (better than the rather tinny Live! Alone in America from a few years earlier, which also has a weaker song selection.) Accompanied only by his own guitar and harmonica, Parker sounds as merry as the crowd, if not as inebriated. During one interval between songs someone yells something in Japanese and he quips “Yes, I understand. I woke up this morning understanding Japanese perfectly — without any studying.” He sings two songs with Japanese themes (“Discovering Japan” and the throwaway “Disposable Chopsticks”), as well as one song “Mercury Poisoning," which in spite of its title isn't an allusion to the notorious Minamata disaster but rather a vicious kiss-off directed at his former record label.

Parker is excellent at crafting taut pop melodies; his lyrics are clever and biting but also a bit trashy. He doesn't brood too much over details; if a song has a throwaway line or two that's fine with him, as long as it holds your attention for three minutes. His attitudes can be a bit trashy too; the sneering pose of “That's What They All Say” and ”Platinum Blonde” is a bit of a tic, and yet both of those songs are gems, crafty and unabashedly below the belt. Being tender isn't really something he's interested in; even when when he comes closest, as in “Long Stemmed Rose,” which compares his lover to a solitary blossom, he ends with these lines:
Wonder where you are who knows
in another bed I suppose
lying like a long stem rose
Still, it's not all nastiness; “Just Like Herman Hesse,” which alludes to Steppenwolf, is deft and intriguing; there's a fine antiwar number (“Short Memories”); and then there's the song that caught my attention in the first place:
In this dirty town there's nothing going for me
No shows going down that I would want to see
Nothing but the midnight train

In this shady street on a top floor flat
Women take their sheets down to the laundromat
And as the night falls on this town
I'm going to watch the moon come down
Watch the moon come down
I'm gonna watch the moon come down
Watch it come down
There's another verse or so, but that's about all there is to the lyrics; the hook is in the repeated descending lines of the refrain. Parker's singing is particularly vigorous and soulful on this track, and the record preserves a great moment, a one-on-one of a songwriter-performer and his audience.

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