Who needs reality TV when Graham Parker's Imaginary Television is on?
Among all his contemporaries, Graham Parker is the weirdest candidate to write theme music for an American sitcom. A transplanted Englishman who has lived near Woodstock, New York for decades, Parker’s hyper-literate, more than a little snarky and the kind of guy who suffers no fools. And you’re going to ask him to contribute to the vapid world of TV sitcoms? It’s like hiring Tom Waits to record a jingle for the Masters golf tournament.
Someone foolishly thought this would be a good idea and asked Parker to submit a song to a proposed sitcom. It was rejected. They asked again and he was shot down a second time. So, rather than lick his wounds in solitude, Parker wrote an entire album’s worth of songs for his own imaginary television shows. And that’s how Imaginary Television (we assume the pun is intended) was born. It’s a gem of a release that continues the remarkably consistent run that the singer/songwriter has been on since 2001 and proves for the umpteenth time that he has he moved far beyond the requisite “pub rock” references and Elvis Costello comparisons.
It’s not perfect – the disc is slightly marred by a couple of relatively weak songs – but it has enough moments of brilliance to transcend its flaws. And the concept is enough to make the release truly special because it challenged Parker to write consciously for characters. There’s Jack Handy, the 28-year-old agoraphobe on “Weather Report” who watches the Weather Channel and stares out his window at a strange, scary world. We meet Hideo Smith, a 20-year-old Japanese-American ski bum trying to overcome his isolation on “Snowgun.” And there are the conjoined twins on “See Things My Way” with prodigious musical talent who land a gig opening for, you guessed it, Graham Parker and his sometime backing band, the Figgs.
It’s all explained in the liner notes, but the key to Imaginary Television’s success is that you don’t need any of the back story to appreciate the album. With a band that includes Mike Gent of the Figgs on drums and Professor “Louie” Hurwitz on keyboard (and co-producing the disc with Parker), the music sticks in Parker’s stylistic sweet spot, a mix of Stones-y rock and reggae accents.
The new creative twist is the Kinks vibe on cuts like “Always Greener” with its poppy tempo and harmonies. Perhaps because the characters are all folks living on the fringes of a twisted and bent society, Parker taps deep into his inner Ray Davies, which is something new for him because it’s a less internal perspective.
Ever since he emerged howling over the Rumour in the late ‘70s, Parker was instantly lumped in with the punk movement even though he had little in common with that genre and was far more aligned with singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan, Willie Nile and Bruce Springsteen. It was obvious from the beginning that this was going to be a career for Parker, not some all-or-nothing reach for stardom. He has a body of work that has spanned four decades and produced 20 studio albums.
He’s been on a fantastic run over the past 10 years, starting with Deepcut to Nowhere in 2001 and continuing through to releases like Songs of No Consequence in 2005 and Don’t Tell Columbus in 2007. But he’s also always been a guy who’s conscious to slights, whether real or perceived. In the middle of a fight with his record company in the late ‘70s Parker fired off the incendiary “Mercury Poisioning”, declaring himself “the best kept secret in the west”. One of his outtakes is a tune called “Museum of Stupidity” that lambastes the rock and roll hall of fame.
Imaginary Television smartly directs all the antagonistic energy he might feel toward the hapless TV producers into the music and lyrics. “Weather Report” kicks the disc off loaded with hooks and a rubbery rhythm that veers into the old school R&B that has long been one of his staples. “Broken Skin” is a sweet, soulful ballad with real compassion for its subject, poor Brandine Van Hooven who just lost her latest boyfriend. The disc builds momentum veering into a bit of jazz on “Bring Me a Heart Again”, and ascending to the surreal Dylan-like imagery of the anthemic “You’re Not Where You Think You Are”.
Then he goes off the rails a bit with a pair of duds. “Head on Straight” sounds a bit too similar to “Not If It Pleases Me” from his first album, and the cover of Johnny Nash’s “More Questions Than Answers” is locked into a repetitive reggae groove that comes too easily Parker and never lifts off. The disc ends on a strong note, though, on the warm, clever “1st Responder”, which is a poppy reminder from a soon-to-be empty nester that his kid will always have the old man backing him up, no matter the trouble.
That none of these songs could ever serve as a real theme tune for a sitcom is meaningless, of course, and part of the fun. Knowing the back stories gives the music a narrative heft that proves Parker never relaxes or slows down, and everything that comes his way is fuel for his creative engine. And there’s nothing imaginary about that.