Graham Parker & The Goldtops: Last Chance To Learn The Twist [Album Review]

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Graham Parker & The Goldtops
Last Chance to Learn the Twist
Big Stir Records [2023]

There was a time, the late 70’s to be exact, when Graham Parker’s name was often mentioned alongside Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson as the “angry young men” of British new wave or punk/pop, with regular debates about which artist was the real deal, who was going to have real staying power. Although Costello has grabbed most of the attention, both Jackson and Parker have maintained long and productive careers as recording and touring artists. Parker’s early tour de force was his 1979 album, Squeezing Out Sparks—recorded with his band The Rumour although they weren’t credited on the album cover—which was voted Album of the Year in the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll. Curiously, that was an album where Parker and producer Jack Nitzsche stepped away from the R&B and soul influences of his previous albums, leaving saxophonist John Earle and the rest of his horn section free to add the brass parts to The Clash’s London Calling, credited as the Irish Horns.

Over the years, Parker’s anger has mellowed, but his smart lyrical wit remains sharp and focused, much as his musical interests have broadened to include folk/rock, finding him collaborating with the likes John Sebastian and The Band’s Garth Hudson. What do you call singer/songwriter roots country by an Englishman, when Americana feels inappropriate (with a nod to Ray Davies’ work with The Jayhawks)? In addition to The Rumour, Parker has joined forces with bands like The Figgs, and in 2018 joined up with The Goldtops to release his 23rd album of original material, including Martin Belmont on guitar, Geraint Watkins on keyboards, Simon Edwards on bass, and Roy Dodds on drums. The Goldtops return here on “Last Chance to Learn to Twist,” with Jim Russell now on drums, and tasteful additions from the Easy Access Orchestra horn section, with the soulful backing vocals of The Ladybugs.

Parker and The Goldtops open this latest recording with a fun blast from the past, diving into the early roots of rock & roll when artists like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and numerous R&B artists were exploring music that crossed genre and racial boundaries in the 1950s. And it’s just like Parker to adapt the criticism of preachers and parents afraid of the youth music of those days, on the opening track “The Music of the Devil,” describing that early rock & roll as “a new sensation.” They follow that with “The Grand Scheme of Things,” a walking and talking blues that would have been a classic sock hop slow dance, with a great old school organ solo, while “Sun Valley,” is a fun, smartly syncopated pop & roll, with a bit of old school guitar from Belmont. The retro vibe dominates, but Parker maintains his “Wicked Wit,” with its classic horn charts while Parker adds plenty of personal touches, making it clear that “It Mattered to Me,” which has a smart sax solo.

Once he had embraced that classic, old school 50s and 60s pop/rock & roll musical format, it’s obvious Parker let his imagination run wild, writing fun curious songs that captured his fancy. For instance, “Pablo’s Hippos” tells the story of the how cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar imported hippos to his illegal zoo in Columbia, introducing the invasive species to an ecosystem where they have multiplied unencumbered, as they have no natural predators. “Them Bugs” takes on the insects that threaten to make every backyard picnic a challenge, while his celebration of “Cannabis” requires no explanation.

Some songs appear to spring from personal observations about modern life, like the tendency toward a passive response to life’s circumstance at the heart of “We Did Nothing,” but there’s also a larger political and ecological aspect of not acting to solve problems that lead to military conflicts or to stem the tide of climate change. Elsewhere, Parker brings his somewhat philosophical view to the relationships that come and go, on tracks like “Since You Left Me Baby,” with the horns leaning toward New Orleans, and the harmonica rich “Last Stretch of the Road.” Parker embraces the roots rock formula of the sounds of his childhood but describes the world he sees as an elder statesman of this all too real, grown-up world we share.

“Grand Scheme Of Things” / “It Mattered To Me” / “Wicked Wit”

Brian Setzer / Joe Jackson / Elvis Costello

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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