Mendelsohn: It has been a while, Klinger, since I’ve made you listen to some sugary, flavor-of-the-month pop act with just enough critical cache to garner a little bit of acclaim outside of the Top 40. So when I happened upon Courtney Barnett’s debut Sometime I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, I thought I might as well force it upon your ears because it hit that soft pop spot in my head. But before you start to see shades of Haim, let me be the first to say that Barnett is not a pop diva in training, and while she does have a great ear for pop music, she also has an incredible sense of song craft. Coupled with lyrical material about nothing, in the same vein as Jerry Seinfeld’s show about nothing, it isn’t hard to see why this album is so well liked.
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Klinger: First of all, yes. We’re back. We decided to take the summer off, then yada yada yada… and now we’re back. Tanned, fit and rested.
When we started this Counterbalance project back in the fall of 1987, we were young and naive, and possibly a bit foolish as we were still learning how to do this whole “writing about music” thing. So much so, in fact, that we managed to write several hundred words about The Velvet Underground and Nico without ever mentioning John Cale by name. It really was an oversight on our part, and one I’ve been kicking myself over for nearly 30 years. But since then, so much has happened. The Berlin Wall has come down, the Internet has presented an avenue for our correspondences, John Cale’s occasional collaborator and foil Lou Reed has passed on—and I have become completely obsessed with Paris 1919.
Mendelsohn: This week, Klinger, we are going to listen to My Morning Jacket’s Z. Released in 2005, this album took the band from being a reverb-soaked psychedelic outfit with a strong indie following to a bonafide critical success, racking up accolades for expanding and polishing their sound. Before this record came out, I hadn’t really paid any attention to My Morning Jacket. I couldn’t get behind all the reverb and warbling falsetto from lead-singer and main songwriter Jim James. It wasn’t until both Pitchfork and Rolling Stone started tossing around platitudes like”Z is My Morning Jacket’s OK Computer”, or “America is a lot closer to getting its own Radiohead, and it isn’t Wilco”, that I decided to investigate further. I didn’t find an American Radiohead. I understand why some music critics might be wiling to make that comparison, lazy though it may be. The record was produced by John Leckie, who had helmed Radiohead’s The Bends (also the Stone Roses’ self-titled debut and worked on Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, plus a couple of Beatles solo projects to name a few). Z also finds a band shifting directions and elevating their game, much like Radiohead had done in the jump from The Bends to OK Computer. Was Z it another OK Computer? No, but My Morning Jacket seemed to find another gear, taking their music beyond the ordinary with a renewed vigor.
Klinger: Few mainstream artists this side of the Eagles took as consistent a critical beating as Billy Joel. Throughout his career, critics have taken immense delight in razzing and belittling him. When he wrote polished ballads, they accused him of not knowing how to rock. When he’d record more rock material, they teased him for being a poser. The poor bastard just couldn’t win. Of course, part of the reason critics kept picking on Billy Joel was he made it so much fun for them. Joel would actually go so far as to read his bad reviews onstage, which had be a perverse delight for the writer who got that far in his head.
Klinger: Not too long ago, Judd Apatow released the film This Is 40, about a struggling record label owner who was facing down his own middle age. I was really looking forward to the movie, in part because the main character (Paul Rudd) was on a quixotic quest to reignite the career of one of his musical idols, Graham Parker. Much like Rudd’s character, I was hoping that This Is 40 might get a few more people interested in someone whose music I’ve loved for decades. And much like Rudd’s character, I ended up disappointed, because Parker is portrayed as a crotchety old oddball (which he might actually be) and because Apatow was not, as it turns out, a great arbiter of hip, and Parker’s career remains relatively unignited.
For my money, though, one listen to Squeezing Out Sparks, Parker’s fourth album, could be what does the trick. Squeezing Out Sparks is the sound of a band (the Rumour) firing on all cylinders to back up a vocalist and lyricist who is singing and writing as if his life depended on it. And without being overdramatic about it, it kind of was. By 1979, Parker and the Rumour had achieved considerable acclaim with their punchy R&B-based sound, but sales had not met expectations and the group left Mercury for Arista. Smart move. Producer Jack Nitzsche (who — jeez, Google his stats), helped them hone their sound to a razor sharp edge, making tracks like “Discovering Japan” and “Protection” absolutely indelible. To me, anyway. You?
Mendelsohn: Yeah, Squeezing Out Sparks is a solid album — enjoyable from start to finish. Except for “You Can’t Be Too Strong”. While it’s nice to see someone addressing the matter of abortion in such a frank fashion, that song just makes me squeamish. But overall, we get to see a band really clicking behind a songwriter finding renewed vigor thanks to a push from one of the greatest producers to ever sit behind the mixing boards. And just for the record, the best part of Googling Jack Nitzsche is learning about his appearance on the TV show COPS. The police arrested an inebriated Nitzsche after he pulled a gun on a couple of kids who stole for stealing his hat. But then, I guess that’s what happens when you wear a silly hat and spend too much time with Phil Spector.
Anyway, this isn’t the first time I’ve been told to listen to Graham Parker. A friend of mine discovered the charms of Parker a couple of years ago and tried to bring me on board. I ignored his overtures because I was already contractually obligated to listen to something else at the time, probably a Neil Young record or some such nonsense. Plus, the few songs my friend played for me immediately reminded me of Elvis Costello and the Arctic Monkeys. I thought to myself, “Why bother when I can go listen to those other bands who are obviously superior to Parker?” Looking back at that event, I realize I was wrong to think that way — not only because Parker’s album is worth the listen, but that sort of closed-minded mentality limits my musical intake and will eventually lead me down a road of narrow focus, which ends in me listening to nothing but Radiohead.
Klinger: Yes, not even Philip Selway would want you listening to nothing but Radiohead, and I just had to get on the Googler to find out which one he is. But, perhaps not surprisingly, I think you’re a bit off in a couple of places. The first is of course when you put off listening to something because it may not measure up completely to something you like, but we’ve been down that road often enough that I’m not going to press the issue. The second is your dismissal of “You Can’t Be Too Strong”. I understand that even talking about abortion is fraught with danger (was that the case in 1979? It can’t have been since they didn’t have the internet.), but Parker’s take on it, no matter how you feel about it, is so brutally, painfully, nakedly honest that you can’t turn away. It commands your attention, even if the narrator doesn’t command your respect. And because the song is wrapped in such an attractive melody, you somehow feel the sucker punch a little bit deeper.
Mendelsohn: Hey, I admitted fault. I should have listened to the record before passing judgment. I also have nothing against brutal honesty of “You Can’t Be Too Strong”, and quiet frankly, it might be one of the most heart-breaking songs I’ve ever heard come off of wax. And that’s great, but it’s not he reason I listen to music. The problem is, it doesn’t jive with the escapism of rock and roll. You mean you can get pregnant from having sex? And then the involved parties will have to deal with said pregnancy? Golly. Just give me the sex and the drugs and the rock and roll without all the unintended consequences. It’s just easier to look past the ugly truth. I do the same thing with other hot-button issues — like evolution, global warming, and gravity. I can’t help it if they are always bringing me down.
Klinger: Interesting thing about the song: Parker claims in his fascinating liner notes to the CD reissue that “You Can’t Be Too Strong” was originally written as a faster, more countrified song. It was Nitzsche who forced Parker and the Rumour to stop hiding behind whiplash arrangements and bar-band playing so that the songs could breathe on their own. As a result, the members of the Rumour (most of whom were veterans of other relatively successful pub-rock bands) stopped sniggering at Parker’s songwriting and really buckled down. On the other hand, Parker and the Rumour drifted apart shortly after this album, so maybe the troubles ran both ways. At any rate, it’s pretty clear that Squeezing Out Sparks was an album that was borne of frustration, with a disgruntled band and an insecure leader and a label that was expecting too much for whatever reason, although the album did make the Top 40 in both the US and the UK, which strikes me as odd.
Mendelsohn: I don’t think it’s that odd. Squeezing Out Sparks is an excellent rock album. Its success can be pinned to a stable of upbeat power pop songs and was probably bolstered by a sonic likeness to Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model, which had been released to great critical and commercial success the year before. I also don’t think its odd that Parker has remained just below the surface, never staking a lasting claim to success or influence. But again, I think Squeezing Out Sparks is a great example of the stars aligning to create great art. Parker wrote some top-notch tunes, the Rumour dropped their horn section in favor of a more stripped-down sound and Nitzsche managed to bring it altogether. Were they a little late to the party the New Wave Rock party? Probably? Is Squeezing Out Sparks missing that special something that drove Costello’s success? Maybe. But let me pose this conundrum. Let’s just say my friend didn’t do a very good job of selling me on Graham Parker. How would you have presented him to the uninitiated? How does Parker fit into the rock narrative?
Klinger: Presenting Parker to the uninitiated is complicated, because you still have to accept that Squeezing Out Sparks is an anomaly among his early classics, simply because it lacks that R&B backbone. But is it fair to suggest that he might have been (and might still be) the American Tom Petty? Both artists cut their teeth on the classics of the 1960s, including the British Invasion (or as it was known in the UK, the British Excursion), garage music and a little bit of soul. Both paid homage to their predecessors while still trying to stake out a new claim lyrically, and while Petty infused the Byrdsy chime of the electric Rickenbacker directly into the mix, Parker’s feel was invariably filtered via the pub rock of the time. And while both invariably get compared to Bruce Springsteen, each of them was doing something a good bit less grandiose.
Parker, however, was a tougher sell to the music industry, who had him opening for Journey in 1979 when he could have been out there building up his own following little by little, club gig by club gig (When will you learn, Music Industry? Oh that’s right—never). And of course, it didn’t help matters much that whatever was going on between him and the Rumour ended up coming to a head shortly not too awfully long after Squeezing Out Sparks. Follow-up album The Up Escalator was lacking, which is understandable, but after that Parker found himself struggling to navigate the new landscape that was the ‘80s. Either way, I’d like nothing more than for people to go back and (re)discover Squeezing Out Sparks, if for not other reason to prove that rock music can have all the sheen and polish of arena rock while still having a heart and a brain and, most of all, a soul.