Sunday, October 15, 2006

Vinyl Tap: Graham Parker And The Rumour - Squeezing Out Sparks

I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #26:

“No one's going to illuminate you / All the odds are stacked against you."
---"Nobody Hurts You," Graham Parker

Anger is an energy, and anger can be power, as Public Image and the Clash would have it, but Johnny Lydon and the late Joe Strummer have nothing on Graham Parker when it comes to bristling with bile and bite -- and discharging devastating energy and pessimistic power in precise and snarling articulation deep into every album groove.

Graham Parker was not just Squeezing Out Sparks in this 1979 masterwork. He’s seething with spittle and spite that variously belittles the world and betrays his own weaknesses -- though it’s often hard to detect vulnerability when such barbed lyrics are embedded in such searing and stinging vocals. It's an on-edge singing prowess ably matched by other former pub-rock Brits, like Parker, who make up the Rumour - whose propulsive sonic assertion features the scorching guitar work of Brinsley Schwarz.

The thematic ambivalence is part and parcel of a complex and all-too-human ambiguity, an emotion-driven and at times numbingly treacherous terrain Parker unflinchingly faces. “I try to straighten out but I'm too wrapped up to see / I don't know how it's supposed to be,” he sings in the mental anguish of “Love Gets You Twisted.” But overweening bravado, false or not, is countervailed in the misanthropic belittlement of small-minded provincialism in the almost perversely infectious “Local Girls,” in which a strutting Parker announces, “Yes I'm aware of exactly what I'm doing / Making everything a mystery / Don't bother with it, it don't bother me…”

In between such extremes of confession and bluster lie a myriad of seemingly insurmountable and psychological defensive barriers to be hurdled, obstructions tossed up on both sides of any relationship. “You try to reach a vital part of me, my interest level's dropping rapidly / It's all excuses baby, all a stall, we just don't get excited,” Parker sings in the frenetic “Don’t Get Excited.” And moving from the state of apathy to one of deadened desires, Parker admits in the heartrending "Passion Is No Ordinary Word": "'Cause this is nothing else if not unreal / When I pretend to touch you, you pretend to feel."

In the same song Parker cavalierly contends “The world is easy when you're just playing around with it” -- a stark contrast to what life becomes when tough decisions are to be made and cold reality confronted. The rationalizations and regrets of abortion are explored with brutal candor in the acoustically spare “You Can’t Be Too Strong”:

    Did they tear it out, with talons of steel
    And give you a shot, so that you wouldn't feel
    And wash it away, as if it wasn't real.

    It's just a mistake, I won't have to face
    Don't give it a name, don't give it a place
    Don't give it a chance, it's lucky in a way…

    …The doctor gets nervous, completing the service
    He's all rubber gloves and no head
    He fumbles the light switch, it's just another minor hitch
    Wishes to god he was dead

    You can't be too strong, you decide what's wrong...

"Can't Be Too Strong" may be the most blatantly honest and straightforward deviation from Parker's tendency to "wear a blank expression to conceal my real impression," as the reggae-fied “Protection“ puts it. But it joins the other tracks from Squeezing Out Sparks whereby, ultimately and always -- in the words of "Discovering Japan” -- “some kind of truth emerges" from its rich stratum of vigor and vitriol - whether in the between-the-lines insinuation and scorn, or by the by note-perfect denotation, bitten off and chewed. And sometimes spat back out.


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