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Graham Parker
Acid Bubblegum
(Razor & Tie)

Acid Bubblegum is meant to be a return to form for Graham Parker, a reprise of his classic Seventies days as a bitter, punky pub-rocker. The album is certainly filled with bitterness, and for a while that's okay. The opening track, "Turn It into Hate," bitches effectively about the blind patriotism that celebrated the Gulf War. And while there's something smug and too easy about Parker's elitism in "Sharpening Axes" ("I don't appeal to the masses and they don't appeal to me"), the soulful power of his blue-eyed sneer pulls it off. But sneers, even charming ones, get old quick when that's all there is. In "Impenetrable" Parker looks down his nose at some of his "white trash" fans, and on the catchy "Obsessed with Aretha," he knocks that legend for not being what she used to be: "You might even say the girl has still got soul/But not that much."

Now, many would say Parker's got one hell of a lot of nerve going after the Queen of Soul, what with his own glory years a good fifteen years behind him. The conventional wisdom on Parker's career has always been that it nose-dived right after 1979's exquisitely bitter Squeezing Out Sparks, or right after he split with the Rumor, or right after he started writing love songs -- take your pick. But conventional wisdom is often wrong, and the truth is that Parker's post-Sparks career has been filled with great moments, sometimes entire albums of them. Critics who only superficially understood the bitterness of Parker's early years were predestined to feel betrayed by the sweet devotion and pop production of 1983's The Real Macaw or by the love songs and rootsy arrangements of 1988's The Mona Lisa's Sister and 1991's Struck by Lightning. The ironies, of course, are that Parker's early records were always as idealistic and romantic as they were cynical, and that his much admired rants against synthetic, passionless lives had regularly been love songs all along.

So while the old-school, bar-band punch on Acid Bubblegum is quite enjoyable, the album fails not because it's a return to form but because it buys into a soulless, bile-packed stereotype of what that form actually was. It forgets Parker's own best advice: "You can't take love for granted." Parker still shows some sparks of the old soul on Acid Bubblegum. But not that much.

-- David Cantwell

Dan Bern
Dog Boy Van
(Work)

It's become a cliche to compare young folkie-type artists to Bob Dylan, but Dan Bern appears to have done the cliche one better by actually becoming Bob Dylan, circa 1962. Exact same adenoidal baritone, same herky-jerky phrasing, same three-chord strum and harmonica fills, same sly-poet verbal panache.

Take "Jerusalem." Draped in a lush melody, the song offers an extended riff by a charming punster who discusses his trip to the Holy Land, the theory of relativity, and his own messianic calling, all without so much as a bridge to offer a breather. "Hannibal," a foot-stomping twelve-bar rocker, bristles with righteous anger. And, as advertised, "Talkin' Alien Abduction Blues" tells the story of Bern's extraterrestrial encounter, during which he is grilled not about his earthling habits but about why nearly all of his songs are in the key of G.

"How come I'm in a spaceship talking about my act?" Bern yelps. "We'd rather talk physics," the aliens respond. "But you're illiterate there." It's moments like these -- moments full of genuine wit and self-effacing humor -- that distinguish Dog Boy Van from the heap of Dylan pretenders.

Bern is also capable of pathos. On "Kurt" Bern puts a fresh turn on one of our moldiest tragedies by observing how addicted our culture has become to the creation of martyrs. He does so, in fact, with grace. The melody is mournful, the pacing dirgelike, and the lyrics at once evocative and unflinching: "When Kurt Cobain blew out his brain, all the little girls cried like rain/As for me, I felt the pain, but I got no T-shirts left to stain/For Kennedy and Jesse James and Joan of Arc and Kurt Cobain."

Obviously there are some Dylan fans who greet any aspiring songwriter with hoisted hackles. But given the vibrancy of Dylan's earliest work -- which Bern mimics -- and given that old Bob hasn't produced much of anything for the last decade, I'm inclined to greet young Dan as a welcome reincarnation.

-- Steven Almond

Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve
Costello and Nieve
(Warner Bros.)

When his fans wanted country, he gave them rock and roll, and when radio expected Kurt Cobain, he was happy to give them Kurt Weill. Now the 1997 model Elvis Costello returns with Attractions pianist Steve Nieve on a limited edition five-EP set of performances culled from a handful of late-'96 club dates. Costello and Nieve serves as a reminder of Costello's massive talent. It's Elvis giving the people what he wants -- intimate performances of mostly newer material, stripped down to the basics of acoustic guitar, piano, and vocals.

Costello isn't afraid to rework signature songs. "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" is performed alone, with a furiously strummed acoustic guitar reminiscent of Pete Townsend's banging overture to "Pinball Wizard." "Alison" is presented as a showstopper, the centerpiece of a set-closing medley that also includes a two-minute detour into a pair of Smokey Robinson classics. The five American shows documented on Costello and Nieve provide a song list as diverse as American Top 40 radio of the Sixties. But instead of the percussive influences of Motown, Mersey, and Stax, Costello and Nieve provide nuanced arrangements in tribute to Broadway, Beethoven, the Grateful Dead, and classic film scores. Plus you get an Elvis Costello confident and comfortable enough to joke about his work during the between-song monologues.

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