The pairing of Graham Parker with the Figgs seems like an appropriate, fateful combination. Parker, who, along with Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, planted a caustic, pint-sized tongue firmly in the cheek of ‘70s new wave; and the Figgs, unsung champions of contemporary workingman’s rock ‘n’ roll, absorbers of the pub rock preen and pose of the former’s Howlin’ Wind and Shooting Out Sparks. Together at last, together again. Master and disciples have performed live together (captured on 1997’s The Last Rock N Roll Tour), but are only now—30 years into Parker’s career—issuing a studio album.
Songs of No Consequence finds Parker getting his rock ‘n’ roll groove back after a prolonged period settling into the less edgy confines of a singer-songwriter role (including last year’s rootsy Your Country, his first for Bloodshot). It’s not an attempt to reclaim the glory days of the Rumour, but an opportunity to slip on some familiar shoes and gauge the comfort factor. Turns out it’s a fit both comfortable and clumsy; the first half of the record stands straight with raggedy mid-tempo rockers and Parker’s snarky wit while the second half stumbles shoddily.
The Figgs (Mike Gent, Pete Donnelly, and Pete Hayes) are the rough-and-ready backing band, a consummate example of the deferent accompanists. They never flagrantly intrude on Parker’s songs and supply the necessary gas to get from point A to point B. Whether the song calls for a Stonesy sway (“She Swallows It”, “Suck ‘n’ Blow”), a reggae groove (“Evil”), or, in the case of “Chloroform”, a decidedly Figgsian riff, they get the job done. Though in all honesty, at times it sounds like they’re holding something back from their performances, as if plainly being there to represent the songs is tantamount to living in them (an odd truth, indeed, for on records like Sucking in Stereo and Palais, the Figgs have represented anything but meager competence). That may be Songs of No Consequence‘s most taxing blow—the songs don’t feel lived-in enough and fail to sustain a satisfactory cohesion.
The cohesion comes from Parker’s voice: it has grown shaggy and sandy with age, situating his delivery somewhere between Marah’s Bielanko brothers and contemporary Dylan. Its matured sound can make the acidic rock songs sound all the more grouchy, but it’s this sense of accrued knowledge and experience that makes Songs of No Consequences’ first half work so well. Railing against his most trusty foil—phoniness—Parker muses on the media’s sacrificing art for sensationalism (“Vanity Press”), dupes and the people who play them (“She Swallows It”), and, in the smirking and infectious “Bad Chardonnay”, reminisces on the little defeats with good humor: “Well I’ve hit the bottom many times / And it’s not always that bad / In fact it’s kind of comforting / Like the friend you’ve never had”. At times there’s too much of a good thing: “Chloroform” rides a danceable and prickly major/minor chord trade-off for far too long, causing the song to inevitably turn on itself.
While his sneering, droll, and at times contemptuous commentary is a winning and welcome trait, Parker’s observations (which have often been defiant if not radical) yellow and inadvertently date themselves during Songs of No Consequences’ second half. “There’s Nothing on the Radio” echoes an opinion held by most people with honorable taste in music, lambasting “right-wing talk show host[s]”, “cardboard country hicks”, and “‘90s cartoon punk”, and concluding: “The future looks like toast / We’d better just burn it”. “Go Little Jimmy”, a bluesy tale of a harmonica player with G. Love on harp, is an example of remarkably uninteresting storytelling. And “Local Boys”, which may be the flipside to Squeezing Out Sparks’ “Local Girls”, is about persuading a girl to stay in town, though may not be so obvious due to the befuddled melody line mucking up the tune.
Parker infrequently—but precisely—hits upon some kind of universal artery in Songs of No Consequence. The doo-wop flavored “Ambivalent” boasts a lightheaded pop chorus that straddles the fine line between schmaltz and smarts; intricate couplets like “It’s not so easy to be so low strung / To be so hung up on nothing at all” sit uncomfortably next to duds like “I couldn’t find the key to unlock your house / Your elevator never seems to work”. Unlike the subject of that song, there’s nothing ambivalent about Parker’s music—that’s the truth and the consequence.