Hard to overrate a guy who's always been underrated, especially by no less than Graham Parker himself. One need only read his introduction to the 1993 double-disc Passion is No Ordinary Word collection to discover an artist who turns self-deprecation into the art of self-hatred; it's difficult to like a guy who's always putting himself way down, because if he can't stand himself, well, why would you want to hang out with him? "I can make gallons of chowder out of this lot," he writes, referring to the 39 tracks found on the Rhino box; he's glad that at least Rhino had the good sense to refer to the collection as an anthology as opposed to a best-of, since, of course, Parker doesn't think his work is the best of anything at all. He likes to think of his career as "wince-inducing"; bless him for beating his critics to the punch. Then, he always was a grumpy bastard anyway, and awfully proud of it.
Not that Parker's career is worth overlooking; indeed, the man often lumped in with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and Joe Jackson actually got there first (in 1976, with the rather immortal Howlin' Wind), even if his was a shtick more closely aligned with, say, Van Morrison (i.e., if you oversing rock songs, maybe they'll sound like R&B tunes after all). The guy's been at it for so long (since 1975, when he and Brinsley Schwarz were spreading the Rumour), you almost have to respect him for just sticking around -- or, at the very least, refusing to go "classical" by adding strings and choirs to his pop ditties or pretending he's George Gershwin when he'll never be anything but good ol' Graham. He's been on more labels than the alphabet; it's gotten to the point where every new record looks like and sounds like a bootleg, maybe because the most recent have been live discs. Worse, he's been the subject of more reissue projects than Duke Ellington, meaning every time he puts out a new disc, some label shleps out competing classic product (say, Arista's made-over Squeezing Out Sparks or Buddha Records' just-available The Mona Lisa's Sister remaster) that makes you (and maybe poor ol' him) wonder why he ain't as good now as he was way back when.
To make matters worse (or better, if you believe Chuck D, and you really shouldn't anymore), Parker's latest disc is available only on the Internet -- and it's a collection of "spare tracks and loose demos" titled Loose Monkeys. (Everything's coming up eBay!) Not a bad disc all around -- it's made up of songs from Parker's never-released Atlantic album and other spare-to-fair fodder, including the lovely "Hormone of Love" and the astonishingly titled "I'm in Love With You." But odds and sods on top of live disc after live disc (including one with the rather moldy Figgs in 1997) tend to drive away even the most die-hard fan. (In England, you can even buy two- and three-disc boxed sets -- enough already.) Nothing says surrender like a garage sale on the Internet, even if the brilliantly caustic liner notes hint that there's still some spark left in the old man yet.
And to think, Parker began this decade with his best record since 1979: Struck by Lightning was where Graham got his most pissy and moany, and not until Greg Dulli started preening in front of a mirror and singing about how sexy his fat bod was would a singer-songwriter come off as so willfully unlikable. But for every song like "She Wants So Many Things," there'd be a pillow to cushion the blow -- say, "Children and Dogs," something you could have gotten your pops for Father's Day. Maybe he's got another great record left in him after all -- either that, or he can just release liner notes for the rest of his life.