Like his occasional touring partner and now bandmate in Gob Iron, Jay Farrar, Anders Parker is cursed with being always respected but forever uncool. The un-ironic, workingman’s rock of Farrar’s Son Volt and Parker’s Varnaline has long garnered critical praise and devout, plaid-flannelled followings, but never the white-hot adoration of hipsters and tastemakers. And damn if that isn’t a great curse to have. Parker’s third solo venture will almost certainly fly under most radars when it comes time to dole out the awards, but the self-titled disc’s solid, unassuming craftsmanship stands to age like fine whiskey, or some other yummy adult treat.
A few years back I caught snippets of acclaim for Varnaline’s Songs in a Northern Key, but unfortunately couldn’t be bothered. In 2001, space on the shelves was getting tight for No Depression-associated bands and artists, regardless of how many were tooting the horns. Mistake. But Anders Parker is the kind of artist whose work, at whatever point you happen to be exposed to it first, will lure you to seek out the rest. This latest release isn’t perfect, but the best of its assured, patient, folk-rock puts Parker in the rare company of dudes like the aforementioned Farrar, Grant-Lee Phillips, and Mark Linkous as contemporary masters of mature, yet creative American song.
The spacious, haunting opening track, “Circle Same”, is one of those songs. It ambles in on a quiet organ note, some studio mumbling, and a few peels from Eric Heywood’s omnipresent pedal steel, a song about wheels and rain. At best, this meager description conjures up a rustic country weeper; at worst, Counting Crows. “Circle Same” is neither of these, but rather a strange, circular composition that travels long distances without getting anywhere. Parker’s articulately-plucked guitar figure goes round and round without peak or valley as he sings the blunt observation, “Is it any wonder / That things don’t change / There’s a sound of thunder / There’s a sound of rain”. Weather, though ever-fluctuating itself, is one of life’s few absolute inevitables. But is that calm or resignation in Parker’s voice? Sally Timms sings a few low bars, but she’s not telling either.
Pedal steel, as mentioned above, is employed liberally throughout the album, but is somehow stripped of its traditional-country associations. Even the rootsiest tracks, such as the gorgeous, sparse “Under Wide Unbroken Skies”, put the steel’s shimmering tones through the ringer, paired with the echoes of distant, crashing percussion. Rather than speaking in distinct regionalisms, Parker’s songs communicate in the language of small towns everywhere. The twangy guitar solos of “Airport Road”, backed by a gentle shuffling beat and the blink of a sustain pedal, evoke the charms of tiny, municipal airstrips from sea to sea. “Pajarito”, about a bull that leapt into a crowd at a bullfight, jars with its moody steel-string rumble and unsettling chord changes; but it’s not a cowboy song, or even an animal-rights song, though it offers those associations. The story is ultimately about rebellion and escape, as Parker sings on the chorus, “You had them by the horns before they got you in the back”. A target turning the tables on his tormentors, the bull is a symbolic hero, an example for those who feel similarly trapped: in a city, a small town, a crummy job, even politically.
It’s far more successful in this regard than “False Positive”, which, despite conjuring up a fine racket, renders its politics uncomfortably obvious. Written after the understandably irritating experience of watching a recent White House press conference, “False Positive” goes after the naked emperor and his cronies. But the commentary, while earnest, isn’t fresh. “Rob with a fountain pen”, “sell you down the river”, “talking heads”, and other stock phrases take away from the song’s impact. That’s always the danger with topical songs that seek to represent what it’s like to be alive in a certain political time/climate — but Parker already does that impeccably elsewhere on the album; going after easy targets doesn’t quite suit him. For instance, the bull who avoids getting lanced in the back on “Pajarito” vs. the government “[sticking] you in the back” on “False Positive”: the former carries much more weight. Plus, Parker’s mellow, low-key voice barely raises its intensity on the latter. But aside from that one track, there’s little to fault on Anders Parker. Like the soft-spoken friend who astounds you once you finally train your ears to pay attention, the album is full of insight and true-life observation. The songs turn down flashy for something much more welcome and rare: enduring.