In 2005, Graham Parker hit yet another career high point with “Songs of No Consequence,” a top-notch collection of tunes that combined electric rock, soul and reggae. Backing him on that album was The Figgs, a group of upstate New York musicians who had toured with Parker for more than a decade.
But even as the accolades were rolling in for “Consequence,” the truth was that Parker already had eight songs written for his next CD (“Don’t Tell Columbus,” which was released March 13) and that he was contemplating flipping the script by recording it on his own.
“I go on instinct,” says the indefatigable Parker when asked how he determines the best format for his music. “Sometimes it feels like a whim, but it always makes sense in the end.”
Parker has been mixing the Brit grit in his voice and attitude with rootsy rock and R&B since the mid-1970s on such stellar albums as “Howling Wind,” “Heat Treatment,” “Squeezing Out Sparks,” “The Mona Lisa’s Sister” and “Your Country.”
“Songs of No Consequence,” he points out during an interview from his home near Woodstock, N.Y., “was right for The Figgs. Making that record, it was, `You guys learn the songs and I’ll join in.’ For (`Columbus’), I decided that I would play as many instruments as possible and fill in with others only what I couldn’t play.”
So for the most part Parker went it alone, singing lead and backing vocals and playing acoustic, electric and lap steel guitars, bass, harmonica and percussion. He was assisted only by Ryan Barnum on keyboards and Figgs guitarist Mike Gent on drums. “Mike started out as a drummer and he had been bugging me to give him a chance to play,” notes Parker.
“The overall sound is less hard, less electric guitar rock (than on `Consequence’). There’s more space in it, more mid-tempo songs and ballads as well.”
Parker plays the kazoo on the rollicking “Stick to the Plan,” in which he skewers unquestioning loyalty, willful stupidity, misplaced faith and even 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who appears “disguised” as “a drunk on a stool slurping up ketchup and acting the fool.”
While Parker concedes that the kazoo is a polarizing instrument - the equivalent of “when one of a couple brings home a parrot” - he happily explains why he uses it.
“When I would do solo gigs (in the year before recording `Columbus’), I’d try out `The Other Side of the Reservoir’ or `Ambiguous’ or `Stick to the Plan,’ and harmonica wouldn’t be right. I needed something else. I don’t know why, but a kazoo popped in my mind.”
Parker says after he bought his kazoo for $2.99 at a store near his home, he promised himself he would learn to play it on stage. “So I was at this gig in an enormous Jewish community center and I took it out of the box for the first time and it sounded awful,” Parker recalls.
Turns out he was blowing into the wrong end of the instrument. “I’ve improved since then,” he says, noting he also has learned to use “those rubber bands they wrap around broccoli” to keep his kazoo safely ensconced in his harmonica holder.
Besides “Stick to the Plan,” Parker fires darts at the political scene on the lilting, jolly “Ambiguous,” which came together during and after the 2004 election. “I thought, `What are people thinking? Are they mad?’ ” says Parker. ” `I know (Bush and Kerry) are both the same, but there is definitely a decision here. ... Kerry is a bad candidate, but at least it’s a vote against Bush.’ ... It was too much for my brain.”
Parker waxes caustic on the dark, accusatory “England’s Latest Clown,” a seemingly pitiless dig at Pete Doherty that alludes to his many foibles as well as his on/off girlfriend, model Kate Moss. But he says the song is not really about the talented but troubled former Libertines and current Babyshambles singer.
“It’s about us, what we desire, the power of the media and living vicariously,” Parker says. “I still haven’t heard (Doherty’s) music. What I know about him I read in a news article. The article was the starting point for the song.
“To me, (Doherty) is the quintessential British star. People see him and think that he has everything. ... Now it’s almost to the point where we’re saying, `C’mon, die badly. Please entertain us.’ “
Parker also gets personal on “Columbus.” “I Discovered America,” the ever-feisty Parker recalls the days when he first landed on these shores and the perserverance it took to stay the course. “Everyone said quit now/That’s when I found hope,” he sings tellingly.
Cutting even deeper is the Dylanesque “Somebody Saved Me,” which starts with Parker alone, hearing “wild dogs scream in the midnight, just like a knife in my heart,” but ends with him renewed and remade by love.
“Coyotes sometimes go through the woods up here, and they make an unearthly sound,” says Parker. “For me (songwriting) is theme association, and once I had that idea in my mind, it’s off you go with that desperation.”