Few artists have maintained the unerring consistency of Richard Thompson's near-half century career. After leaving Fairport Convention in 1970cofounded by the British singer/songwriter/guitarist and bringing electrified energy to music born of the British folk traditionThompson's own career grew from those innovations to incorporate an even broader range of stylistic references, all filtered through a particularly dark filter. Shoot Out the Lights
(Hannibal, 1982) remains one of the most painful breakup records ever released, charting #9 on Rolling Stone
's 100 Greatest Albums of the 80's
despite no hit single and selling, at the time of compilation, a mere 60,000 copies. Not that 60,000 is shabby, but surrounded by Michael Jackson's megahit Thriller
(Epic, 1982) and Tracy Chapman's huge-selling eponymous 1988 Elektra debut, it affirms a successful career where popular acclaim has, sadly, never matched critical acclaim as consistent as Thompson's own discography.
Consistency can sometimes mean albums coming and going with little to recommend them, but with Dream Attic
, Thompson has delivered more than just another fine album; he's got another career milestone. Recorded live, it capitalizes on the energy of a kick-ass group of old and new friends playing thirteen exceptional originals. The 74-minute set contains plenty of room for Thompson's distinctive electric approachMark Knopfler-on-psychotropics, combined with the lilting bends of traditional Northumbrian pipes player Billy Pigg (1902-1968). "Crimescene" starts in a very dark space that suddenly picks up, mid-song, leading to a two-chord vamp where Thompson breathtakingly combines fierce, tremolo strumming amidst chords being bent every which way, angular phrases, screaming bends and repetitive meshes of high neck hammer-ons pulled against low note pedal tones. His solo on the closing "If Love Whispers Your Name," references Fairport's classic "Sloth," but updated with everything Thompson's learned in the ensuing forty years.
Lyrically, Thompson's pen is as sharp as ever, whether it's a cynical take on the recession ("The Money Shuffle"), hope springing eternal ("Bad Again") or the perils of style over substance ("Here Comes Geordie"). When he pays tribute to friends lost, as he does on the gospel-tinged "A Brother Slips Away," the pain is as palpable as the words are spare and carefully chosen. With longtime musical multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn and violinist Joel Zifkin alongside the powerhouse rhythm section of bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, Thompson has a quintet of tremendous range, finding the nexus of funk and Morris dancing on "Demons in Her Dancing Shoes," with textures both forward-searching and backward-reaching.
Live albums intrinsically lose out on the polish possible in studio recordings, but Thompson more than makes up for it with boundless and seemingly effortless energy. A bonus disc of acoustic demos, available in the two-disc Deluxe Edition
, supports what Thompson's producers have always claimed: that he comes exceptionally well-prepared, with vocal arrangements and intertwining multi-instrumental parts already conceived. Rawer, perhaps, but all the better for it, a double album with unplugged demos and plugged-in live versions of the same tunes is nothing short of manna from musical heaven, especially when they all come from Richard Thompson's Dream Attic
Personnel: Richard Thompson: electric guitar, vocals, acoustic guitar (CD2), mandolin (CD2), harmonium (CD2); Pete Zorn: acoustic guitar (CD1), Eb flute (CD1), alto saxophone (CD1), sopranino saxophone (CD1), baritone saxophone (CD1), mandolin (CD1), vocals (CD1); Michael Jerome: drums (CD1), vocals (CD1); Taras Prodaniuk: bass (CD1), vocals (CD1); Joel Zifkin: electric violin (CD1), mandolin (CD1), vocals (CD1).