On 2004’s Tell It to the Dust Anders Parker created a magical set of songs that found themselves on many year-end top ten lists. Tell It to the Dust was a near perfect folk rock record that found Parker tempering his tendency toward the guitar-driven bombast that characterized his last band, Varnaline. While I don’t think anybody would call Tell It to the Dust subdued, it bore only a minimal resemblance to the crunchy guitar driven rock of Varnaline. Parker had clearly made a clean break from the loud and thick towards a more nuanced approach towards his songwriting. Or had he? It seems that Parker hadn’t lost his penchant for big guitars during the recording of “Dust”—he’d simply been setting the rockers aside. Those songs now see the light of day on The Wounded Astronaut.
Upon listening to The Wounded Astronaut, you’ll know why Parker decided to keep these songs off Tell It to the Dust. Dust is a subtle album that employs few, if any, of the stylistic elements of Varnaline. From the saxophone-fueled mid-tempo romp of “Go Alone” to the piano balladry of “Innocents”, Parker was clearly trying to stretch himself as a songwriter. I imagine the idea of churning out more Varnalinesque rockers was decidedly uninteresting territory. But I guess old habits do die hard. I have this vision of Parker writing the mellow acoustic “Keep Me Hanging On” or “Feel the Same” while fighting to keep a monster guitar riff from tearing apart the studio like Godzilla through a small Japanese town. How else can you account for Dust‘s “Doornail (Hats Off To Buster Keaton)”?
The Wounded Astronaut is, for the most part, exactly as it’s billed: six songs that didn’t fit into Tell It to the Dust, the majority of which are out and out rockers. If you’re a fan of Anders Parker (and miss Varnaline at all) you’ll be quite pleased with this EP. But it’s hard to imagine it finding a favored place in the album rotation of those who were charmed by Dust‘s melodic and carefully crafted songwriting. The truth is that it’s hard to write a really strong rock song. Just ask REM, who stated their intention to write a whole album of them and could only come up with “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Loud doesn’t necessarily mean good.
The songs on The Wounded Astronaut are a mixed bag. The title track is a winner and can stand with just about any of Parker’s best work. It’s even tough to imagine why it wasn’t included on Tell It to the Dust in place of, say, “Doornail (Hats Off To Buster Keaton)”. But I quibble. But songs like “I Found You” are, at best, outtakes from Stone Temple Pilots’ Core. This may seem like a good thing to some, but not to me. The five and a half minutes of “Everyone Will Shine” is comprised mostly of strummed acoustic guitar and keyboard washes. It’s a classic outtake in that it’s clearly an overindulgent studio experiment that’s tailored for ending up on an EP. It doesn’t really go anywhere, never builds on itself, and mercifully peters out. The EP finishes with “Fast and True” and “Smile”, two songs worthy of inclusion in the Parker oeuvre. “Smile”, in particular, is a winning combination of boy/girl harmonies and chiming guitar, the kind of song that sticks in your head long after it’s over.
That The Wounded Astronaut is a mixed bag shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; the songs are, after all, essentially rejects from an excellent album. For the Anders Parker completist, this EP will be essential. For those newer to Parker’s work, the clear starting point is Tell It to the Dust.