Back in the fold: 30-year break serves groundbreaking, criminally neglected combo well
Graham Parker recently described his long-overdue return to the UK, his breakout backing band the Rumour in tow, as a victory lap, and Mystery Glue — smart, nuanced, good-natured, relaxed, masterful, the songs sashing and swaying with a kind of jazzy elegance — radiates with the confidence of just such an endeavor. The subtext for the sextet’s second record following their surprise 2012 reunion, and Parker’s appearance in the Judd Apatow’s smash hit movie This is 40, is “we’ve paid our dues plenty, this time it’s (mostly) for fun.”
But it’s hardly mindless fun. Parker’s songs still cut and slash, at times with righteous indignation, and the Rumour are focused, just within a different lens. Considering the gritty, hardboiled, defiant R&B that defined the group’s explosion out of the UK in the late 1970s, Mystery Glue plays as its slightly shocking obverse: open-hearted, airy, poised, versatile, but slotted with plenty of slyly relevant observations on a world gone mad circa 2015. Now that the long-ago pressures—of a career, of a hit record—are off, the group sounds regal, like an ensemble that has seen it all and can play it all, gracefully slipping into the role of diverse honky-tonk pub band of your dreams. From nods to reggae and jazz, soul and rockabilly, it all merges into the Rumour’s mélange.
Parker’s songwriting, meanwhile, veers masterfully from the political to the personal, the playful to the melancholy, from retro to right now. There are no awkward attempts at Rumour-esque retreads; instead, he simply continues along the arc of his more recent work—consistently strong, unfairly ignored albums (see especially 2001’s Deepcut To Nowhere and 2007’s Don’t Tell Columbus), comprised of witty compositions with strong angles on history, sociology, downed romance, the absurdities of modern life, and the complexity of human relationships. Just about all of the new ones come stocked with pop hooks so persistent they’ll commence rattling around the cerebellum after just minimal attention.
Among Glue’s more striking offerings is “Flying Into London”, an exceptionally atmospheric bit of anxiety and anticipation performed with acuity, plus superb guitar-and-keyboard tradeoffs by Brinsley Schwarz, Martin Belmont, and Bob Andrews. Working on multiple levels, its universalism suggests a faceoff with reality, a sizing up and coming to terms; it manages, too, to hook in all that old Rumour history, if only surreptitiously. “Wall Of Grace”, meanwhile, is Mystery Glue’s most affecting song. A fascinating character sketch, the protagonist (Grace) proudly papering her walls with family photos, the song crawls inside the her heart and comes out with a kind of giddy affirmation, of life, of love, aided by the Rumour nailing its stretched-out glider of a melody, Schwarz’ wah-wah solo, and the album’s most devastating hook.
The combo’s playfulness rules on the upbeat zingers “Swing State” and “I’ve Done Bad Things”. “I live in a swing state/It’s better than a state of hate,” Parker joyfully posits on the former, castigating those blindly chasing material wealth amid swimming keyboards and dancing guitars. On the latter, the Rumour underpin with Stax-style country soul, Parker exuberantly shedding of guilt and shame, before taking a noose to the song with a coruscating, politically pointed middle eight: “We need someone who gets up there and stands for what’s right,” he barks, as the Rumour positively wail in support.
Elsewhere, Parker’s songwriting sparkles with lines that might initially appear clichéd (“Pub Crawl”, “Slow News Day”), but sink in as casual, conversational, astutely observational, while the Rumour traverse. “Railroad Spikes”, for example, plays on the ancient themes—work song, train song—angling toward a kind of Johnny Cash-style rockabilly. “Fast Crowd” revisits the group’s familiarity with reggae—a think-for-yourself theme hung over a reggae backdrop. “Long Shot”, the de facto title track, lays down some heart-on-sleeve philosophy, playing like a classic pop anthem, Parker tidily wrapping up the life’s elusive ethereality in four-and-a-half short minutes.
What are things like with the Rumour now?
This is a jump from the last one. Now that we’ve played together a bit more. It’s still extremely complex, how the band fits together, but the Rumour are settling into the musicianship. They can play with a huge variety, and the record sounds incredibly natural to me. It takes extreme effort, actually, but the end result is now sounding effortless.
“Flying Into London” is the song that struck me quickest…
A song is a grain of truth blown up out of all proportion, you know. ”Flying into London” came from this feeling, of kinda hurtling myself into something and I don’t know what it’s going to be like. And it’s got all this foreboding in it.
How have things changed for you over the last few years?
In some ways, it’s superfluous, because I’m just gonna do what I do anyway. I’m a field of one. You never know how these things are going to go, but it certainly didn’t hurt me to be in a number 3 movie in America.
So, with your new record deal, a boxed set is in the works?
Yeah, I’m signed to Universal. How does that happen? Anyway, it was first going to be a Graham Parker and the Rumour boxed set, but it morphed. This guy putting it together became aware that between 1980 and now I’ve made a lot of records, and he couldn’t believe how good they were. He said, “let’s do a career-spanning boxed set, with DVDs.” So, we’re picking out songs from every record.
INTERVIEW: LUKE TORN
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