THREE CHORDS GOOD
Graham Parker & the Rumour (Primary Wave)
Graham Parker has enjoyed one of the strangest careers in rock music.
Every article or review about the English rocker has the requisite description of him emerging from the punk rock movement in the late '70s and along with Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello forging an aggressive, R&B-fueled take on the singer/songwriter ethos.
But the story didn't end when he sacked the Rumour in 1980. Since then Parker has pumped out more than two dozen studio releases, live albums, and compilations. Some of them have been brilliant -- "The Mona Lisa's Sister," "Deepcut to Nowhere," "Acid Bubblegum" -- and virtually all of them have been criminally overlooked.
So when he popped up this year in the new Judd Apatow movie This Is 40 and got back together with the Rumour it was a great surprise to his diehard fans and a challenging proposition creatively. With the five-piece English outfit his music was bombastic and hyperactive, with every song played as if the fate of the universe was at stake.
"Three Chords Good" is a testament to superb songwriting, great ensemble playing, and, most impressive of all, the value of maturity. The Rumour is now a supple, swinging band that knows how to step off the accelerator and leave breathing room in Parker's compositions.
The disc is heavy on sharp topical material that tackles our cynical attitude toward war ("Arlington's Busy"), the hypocritical, anti-woman approach some Republicans took this election year ("Coathangers"), and his barbed take on pop culture and political pundits ("Snake Oil Capital of the World," "A Lie Gets Half Way Around the World").
Parker's pen is acid, but he leavens his message with wit and sharp writing. Equally good are the more personal songs such as the tender "Long Emotional Ride" and the two standout pop rockers "Stop Cryin' About the Rain" and the title track, both of which feature crafty chord changes and great wordplay.
The Rumour's playing is top-notch, of course, the production and arrangements are exceptional, and at 62 Parker sounds like a man who is still peaking and still hungry. Thirty-five years down the road his attention is focused far less on the personal and more on the world around him, but the emotional core of his work is still strong.
-- ROD LOCKWOOD
Winard Harper & Jeli Posse (Jazz Legacy Productions)
Baltimore-born jazz drummer Winard Harper, 50, viewed by some as a modern day Art Blakely, has a Toledo connection. He performed on one of the better locally produced jazz albums in recent years, "Cookin' At Murphys," a 2005 recording in which he sat in with pianist Claude Black, bassist Clifford Murphy, and saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman.
Harper, a longtime fixture in the New York jazz scene, has played with countless other big names in jazz and has thrived as a band leader and educator, taking his sextet anywhere from the Kennedy Center in Washington to the West Coast.
"Coexist" is a remarkable achievement, a disc that may elude many would-be listeners who don't follow what's released on small independent labels. It's straight-ahead jazz with tight composition and stellar musicianship, a fine combination of horns, sax, piano, and bass to complement the drums and percussion played by Harper and three others.
"Coexist" has three Harper originals and beautiful covers by Newman, Dr. Billy Taylor, Sonny Clark and others, including Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." And this band's rendition of John Newton's "Amazing Grace" is one to behold.
-- TOM HENRY
Wiz Khalifa (Rostrum/Atlantic)
Don't kill Wiz Khalifa's vibe -- it's all he's got. "O.N.I.F.C." is his second major-label album, and even if it doesn't have a purpose, it has a mood: smooth, ethereal, unhurried. It's as if he's trying to tell you something, without having to rely too heavily on pesky, inconvenient words.
When he deploys them, it's sparely, and with limited subject range and power. Mostly he raps about what kind of weed he's smoking (the best, duh) and how many people have been copying his style (loads, duh) in a manner that suggests that enough of the first might lead one to not worry too much about all that other stuff. "The Bluff" opens with a chest-clearing cough, and at the beginning of "Time," he asks, "Who else you know smoke a half-pound in seven days?"
Well, for one, the closest analog to Wiz Khalifa's stoner affect is Snoop Dogg, the early years. (The two have collaborated before, though not here.) But Snoop had menace in his rhymes, and a slithery voice that seeped into the crevasses of a beat. By contrast, Wiz Khalifa is by far the most enunciative rapper of the day, his stolid verses served with flat affect and sitting atop the beats, rigid and square.
For someone so relaxed, he certainly sounds at odds with much of this album; even the warm, enveloping production, primarily by ID Labs, doesn't loosen up his stiff flow at all.
But in the second half of the album, Wiz Khalifa allows himself to be disrupted. The production becomes more varied -- the loose disco-esque drums on "No Limit," or the sturm-und-drang R&B on "Remember You" (a collaboration with the Weeknd) -- and in response, he sounds energized, bounding around like someone whose high has worn off. He's paying attention, and it shows.
-- JON CARAMANICA, New York Times