Across his nearly 50 years as a recording history, Graham Parker has had it both ways: he’s made fiery, passionate, rocking music, and he’s delivered subtle, stripped-down solo/acoustic work. But he’s always done things his way, and that independent creative streak is the thread that runs through his vast and superb body of work.
Parker’s commercial peak came decades ago with albums like Squeezing Out Sparks, but he’s remained an articulate and highly compelling artist in the years since. Underscoring that fact is the release of a new collection of original songs, Last Chance to Learn the Twist. The first fruits of a new deal with Big Stir Records, the album is as thrilling, vital and – most of all – real as anything in Parker’s catalog. The hypnotic opener “The Music of the Devil” takes a simple musical and lyrical phrases and runs with it, drawing the listener in to Parker’s world. He shifts gears completely for “Grand Scheme of Things,” a tune that has its roots in early rock styles, with a bit of classic country to boot. But it’s a testament to Parker’s artistry that he’s every bit at home with whatever musical style he chooses to wrap his always-thoughtful lyrics.
The yearning “Sun Valley” is soulful in the extreme, and features some tasty guitar soloing from longtime associate Martin Belmont. The song is equal parts contemporary and classic; not at all dated-sounding, it could have fit seamlessly on any of his ‘70s or ‘80s records. It’s back to timeless c&w for “It Mattered to Me,” a weeper in the grand tradition. The wonderful horn charts on “Wicked Wit” recall his use of brass on his albums of many years ago, too. And Parker’s in fine voice; at age 72 he sounds as vital as he did when singing “White Honey” all those years ago. And that voice – distinctive as it is, perfect for the music.
Parker explores a variety of musical textures on Last Chance to Learn the Twist. Album title aside, country informs a great deal of the record. Songs like the cinematic southwestern sweep of “Pablo’s Hippos,” the high lonesome “Cannabis,” and the doot-doot singalong of “Shorthand” all have a Nashville feel; the last-named cut features some delightfully subtle Floyd Cramer-style piano work from Geraint Watkins.
But the spare rock-soul of “Lost Track of Time” underscores the fact that Parker’s muse is never confined to one genre; his musical palette has countless colors. The strangest tune on the set is “Them Bugs,” a tune wholly unlike anything in Parker’s catalog (unless you include “Hey Lord, Don’t Ask Me Questions”). The record ends with a swinging slice of retro, “Since You Left Me Baby.” Everything about the song – from its title on down – suggests it’s a cover of a tune from the ‘50s
But it’s not: it’s an original. Just like Graham Parker.