Recommended Albums #37

mona lisa

Graham Parker: The Mona Lisa’s Sister (1988)

I’ve always wondered about the tendency, when you discover an artist well into their career, to forever prefer the album that served as your introduction to that artist over the rest of their catalogue. Although it may be merely a sentimental, subjective attachment, there could also be valid reasons why this so often happens.

If that album was recommended by a fan of the artist it’s entirely appropriate that they should select that artist’s finest work in their attempt to evangelize you. And it just makes sense that, whether it’s word of mouth or a tendency for a music retailer (we used to call them “record stores”) to stock more copies of the better stuff, that a singer or band’s best work will be the most likely to blow through your transom at some point.

My introduction to Graham Parker was overlaid with all the symmetry of obsolete two-sided music media: a friend made me a cassette with the The Mona Lisa’s Sister on one side and Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene on the other. Each album has been described as a return to form by a long-established rocker, each served as my introduction to an artist, and each remains my favorite of the two artists’ respective catalogues.

I’m just gonna tell it like it is: as much as music critics rave about Howlin’ Wind and Squeezing Out Sparks–Parker’s early work from the late 70’s–to my ears The Mona Lisa’s Sister is his most satisfying record. But of course I must add the disclaimer that it was the one I heard first, so I may be biased.

This album features more acoustic guitar than on Parker’s previous work. As he described it, the desire to make a record that focused on the singer, the song and acoustic guitar in the era of blown-up Phil Collins, George Michael and Whitney Houston productions got him kicked off his record label. Sticking to his intentions to not sound like everyone else’s music, he signed on with RCA and proceeded to make an album “stripped of superfluous information, devoid of artifice, and free from the stamp of a ‘producer'”.

Cutting his vocals live as opposed to overdubbing, adding bass, keys and lead guitar only as spare enhancements, Parker made an album that still sounds good today, while much 80’s pop and rock sounds like it was buried under an avalanche of synths. Graham himself relates:

“Funnily enough, I bumped into two engineer/producers not long after the album had been released and they seemed confused by its popularity and good reviews. One thought it sounded ‘unfinished’ and the other one decided that there was something just plain wrong with it!  I knew then that I had attained Success.”

While I agree it was indeed a success (or, as Graham might say, “SUCK-sess”) in the interest of equal time I’ll reprint Allmusic Guide‘s brief and particularly unflattering review:

Graham Parker moves to his fourth record label (actually, his fifth, if you count Atlantic, which dumped him before releasing an album) for one of his less inspired efforts. When he sings “Get Started, Start A Fire,” he seems to be talking to himself, and when he resorts to covering the old Sam Cooke hit “Cupid,” he seems to be grasping for material.

Of course, I couldn’t disagree more strongly but, as a recent post on this site asserted, the appreciation of music is a very subjective thing, and one man’s “great” is another man’s “meh”. So listen and decide for yourself…

Listen to: “Don’t Let it Break You Down”


Listen to: “Success”


Listen to: “Get Started, Start a Fire”


Listen to: “The Girl Isn’t Ready”


Listen to: “I Don’t Know”


See also: Songs You May Have Missed #685 | Every Moment Has A Song (

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