Thursday, June 13, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1270: Graham Parker and the Rumour

I watched my beloved Boston Bruins lose in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final last night. It still hurts. It helps that we won it all in 2011 but losing in the final is a worse feeling than missing the playoffs altogether. Falling only a single game short is about as bad as that feeling gets. Argh.

Anyway, I can now gear up to watch football where my beloved Miami Dolphins have next to no chance to lose in the Super Bowl. Given how I’m feeling right now, that’s probably just as well.

Disc 1270 is… Squeezing Out Sparks
Artist: Graham Parker

Year of Release: 1979

What’s up with the Cover? 1979 was equally unkind to haircuts, wardrobes and fonts.

How I Came to Know It: I heard about this record through a Paste Magazine article titled “Top 30 albums of 1979” where it came in at #23. I already owned 10 of the albums they chose but four more caught my attention. One of those was “Squeezing Out Sparks”.

How It Stacks Up:  Graham Parker has 23 albums and I did check out a few other ones, but so far “Squeezing Out Sparks” is easily the best. That said, since I only own the one record, there is no official stacking to be had.

Ratings: 4 stars

Late seventies British New Wave is not my usual thing, but the universe throws out incredible records in every style to make sure you keep paying attention. “Squeezing Out Sparks” tested my resolve, with its cheesy album cover promising lots of overwrought anxiety rock.

Once the music started, I was pleasantly surprised by a record that has all the frenetic energy of New Wave but with a purposeful rock and roll heart at the centre of it all. The result made me want to get up and dance but never felt contrived. “Protection” in particular has a killer rhythm that will make it hard to decide if you want to cut some of your best moves on the side of the floor, or leap into the middle of the slam and bounce around.

Even slightly kitschy songs like “Discovering Japan” had their moments, and when Parker slows it down for tear jerkers “You Can’t Be Too Strong” you get a great combination of tough and sensitive. It won’t make you cry, but it might have you staring pale and wan out a window.

I felt drawn in by the acoustic guitar strum on “You Can’t Be Too Strong” with its mournful down strokes. While these songs don’t challenge the players at a technical level, they do require everyone to sit artfully at the front of the pocket where this music sounds best. The band not only does this masterfully, they also play with emotional intention, which is too often given short shrift in this genre.

Parker’s vocals reminded me a bit of Elvis Costello, only he wasn’t annoying and pretentious like Costello sometimes sounds. Parker even adds a bit of a rock and roll snarl to his delivery like Joe Jackson. He’s not just sitting back and putting on an art show, he’s climbing into the stories of his songs and getting beautifully lost.

Those stories are pretty basic, not having much to say beyond the chorus. Even this is often little more than the title repeated. But hearing Parker sing “You Can’t Be Too Strong” or “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” over and over again is surprisingly affecting.

The record has grade A production, reminding me favourably of another 1979 album, “Damn the Torpedoes.” It isn’t at the same level as that masterpiece, but it has the same crisp clean production and metallic bite that lets you feel the visceral energy of the tunes.

The only song that let me down was “Waiting for the UFOs” which Parker pronounces as “you-foes.” It is an irksome affectation that is intended to add energy, but the album already has plenty to spare without such silliness.

My copy of the album was a remastered version that includes a live version of the entire record called “Live Sparks”. I could have lived without this bonus material, which is on the same CD and makes the playing time an unwieldy 78 minutes. The live versions of the same songs are sometimes a bit better, sometimes not, but failed to give me any additional insight into the record either way. Parker also does a version of the Jackson 5 classic “I Want You Back” which is OK, but not essential.

Fortunately this record is so consistently brilliant that I was able to overlook my usual pet peeves and just enjoy hearing the record play one more time, live or otherwise. “Squeezing Out Sparks” is a hidden gem that deserves to be recognized as one of 1979’s best – thank you Paste Magazine for making sure I learned that.

Best tracks: Local Girls, You Can’t Be Too Strong, Passion Is No Ordinary Word, Protection

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