Cynical and Becalmed (5/24/2002)
Graham Parker, Deepcut to Nowhere (Razor & Tie 2001) - Graham Parker - by turns pissed off, cynical, and becalmed - returns with Deepcut to Nowhere. A gifted songwriter, Parker shines through on songs like "Depend on Me," "Cheap Chipped Black Nails," and "Tough on Clothes."
Backing Parker on the new album are Pete Donnelly (from the Figgs) on bass, Steve Goulding (from the Rumour) on drums, Professor "Louie" on keyboards, and producer Dave Cook on mandolin and jews harp.
Parker's recording career began in 1976 with Howlin' Wind. Find one of his greatest hits collections for an overview of his career that found new lift in the 90's with such albums as The Mona Lisa's Sister.
Parker has lived in the Woodstock, New York area for years. In discussing his first album of new material in five years, he says, "We are in a sound culture now . . . There isn't anybody young as good at lyrics as Elvis Costello or Joni Mitchell or me. Beck's lyrics may be interesting, but anyone who is bright and has smoked lots of dope could come up with them."
As Parker has settled into middle age (see "Socks & Sandals"), he has gotten tired of being tagged an "angry artist," says Parker. Commenting on his infamous song, "Mercury Poisoning" (which was a kissoff to his old record label), Parker explains, "It was really a shallow song, a nasty diatribe against a corporation. But there you had enough to hand the press an angle on a 'bitter and cynical man.'"
Parker continues. "Recently a fan came backstage to tell me to my face that he hadn't bought any of my albums because he heard they are too bitter. I said, 'Do you really think I am going to waste the public's time putting out bitter little albums? Please leave this room before something bad happens.'"
Here's all you can ask for in a record - smart lyrics, good vocals, and a riff that brings you back. Deepcut to Nowhere contains all of the above. Grow up, take your hits, and find Graham Parker.
John Mellencamp, Cuttin' Heads (Columbia 2001) - With the signing of John Mellencamp, Columbia Records added an impressive bookend to a roster that includes Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, Mellencamp makes a style of music that is an American original, and deserves to be supported.
Cuttin' Heads is the latest release in a 17-album career spanning 25 years. Mellencamp remains true to his roots rock sound - there's a steady rock beat, but enough fiddles, mellotrons, and percussion to go around.
Mellencamp principally recorded the album with Andy York, with contributed such instruments as pedal steel and bass. Comments Mellencamp, "It was out of necessity - because it was either me or him. Once we were done with drums and basic tracks, it was me on acoustic guitar and Andy would follow along. That's how we came up with the arrangements."
Backing musicians on the album included Steve Jordon on drums and percussion, Willie Weeks on bass, Moe Z on organ, clavinette and percussion, Mike Wanchic on guitar and backing vocals, and Miriam Sturm on violin and keyboards. Also joining the band is Jenn Cristy on flute and percussion.
Actually, Cuttin' Heads was recorded more than once. The first version of the album was recorded in Florida, only to be scrapped and re-recorded by Mellencamp at Belmont Mall, his home studio in Indiana.
Cuttin' Heads has the vintage Mellencamp sound - rock steady, with political undertones. Work your way through "Crazy Island," "Just Like You," and "The Same Way I Do" (a real winner), and you will see that Mellencamp has lost none of his touch.
John also has three guest vocalists: Chuck D (from Public Enemy) who provides the rap on the anti-discrimination "Cuttin' Heads," India.Arie on "Peaceful World" and long-time friend, Trisha Yearwood on "Deep Blue Heart."
Ten songs. No crap. No filler. That's Mellencamp. Says the singer, "I've always preferred to take a questioning view of a situation, but then wrap it up the way American likes things wrapped up with a nice little bow. Frank Zappa said, 'Everything is displayed nicely in America.' I read that when I was, like 17, and it always stuck with me. But, of course, when you open it up, what's inside is not always so great."
Support this American original.
Tom Paul, I Was King (Tom Paul 2001) - These days, the music comes from so many sources, it's almost dizzying. I Was King is a pleasant surprise from Tom Hall, a 40-something roots-rocker hailing from Steeltown.
The 14 songs are centered on Paul's rough-and-ready voice. The combo loads the best songs at the front, especially the opening, "It's an Easy Life." Paul has a mature sound that makes me think of Al Stewart. Not because of his vocal stylings, but more because of the production - a full, pop sound with sax solos and a good storytelling sense. Tom also shares the sense of place of fellow Pittsburgh artist, Joe Grushecky.
With the polished studio sound of "If I Was King" and "If Only It Would Stop Raining," the album is the work of professional musicians.
Which is not surprising, as the backing combo consists of Charlie Morgan, who drums for Paul McCartney, Charlie DeChant, the sax player for Hall & Oates, and veteran producer John Marsden on keyboards.
The album has an interesting history, as the artists came together through an Internet bulletin board. Tom Paul posted a message asking for a drummer to help complete his songs on a news group. As of June 2001, he had never met the men who helped finish his album.
John Marsden responded that drummer Charlie Morgan was available on a contract basis. Both live in Orlando, Florida and jumped in to help finish the album. They also brought in their friend, Charlie DeChant, on sax.
I Was King is one of those little pleasures that grows over time. The first time through is a pleasant trip, and repeated listenings show the pleasure of this understated gem. This is a sound from the 70's you don't hear much of any more - pop music with a sax balancing the guitar. Yet in the 70's, it ruled the airwaves, including such big sellers as City to City by Gerry Rafferty.
And I understand why I hear shades of Al Stewart. Listen for the Spanish-styled guitar opening on "She Dreams of Flying," which will recall Stewart's, "On the Border."
For real rock from real musicians, look for I Was King.
- Randy Krbechek © 2002
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