Richard Thompson: Electric [Deluxe]
The title may be Electricand, to be sure, it contains no shortage of the unfettered Celtic quirkiness that's garnered Richard Thompson accolades like "the best electric guitarist since Jimi Hendrix" (Scott Timberg, L.A. Times)but that doesn't mean there's a paradigm shift going on in the British singer/songwriter's overall modus operandi. Instead, what Thompson does, as he's largely been doing since he first went solo in 1971, is deliver another consistently fine set of original material, playing with a core trio that's been working with him, for the most part, since 2003's The Old Kit Bag (Cooking Vinyl) in the case of drummer Michael Jerome and, for bassist Taras Prodaniuk, 2007's Sweet Warrior (Shout! Factory).
One of the secrets to Thompson's sustainable career as both insightful and razor-sharp singer/songwriter and incomparable guitarist has been to shake things up while never losing sight of what defines him. Working with different producers has often been a means for creating differentiation in a career that's yet to produce anything approaching a bad record, and with nearly 30 commercial recordingsnot including a growing series of live recordings available through his website, and career-spanning rarities collections like Free Reed's massive RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson (2006) or the more recent Live at the BBC (Universal, 2011)that's no mean feat.
Just following up on 2010's superb Dream Attic (Shout! Factory) and DVD/Blu-Ray Live at Celtic Connections (Eagle Vision)which introduced some of Thompson's best new material in more than a decadeis no small accomplishment either; but if Electric isn't particularly stronger in the songwriting department, neither is it any weaker. It is, however, a darker, sharper and more biting record, filled with the kind of subject matter that, in lesser hands, might weigh an album down but, in Thompson's more than capable hands, makes for a strangely transcendent catharsis.
Turning to producer Buddy Millerno slouch of a guitarist himself, and hot off the success of singer Robert Plant's Band of Joy (Rounder, 2010), which he co-produced with the ex-Led Zeppelin singer and with whom he spent over a year on the roadElectric's 11 originals are not entirely plugged in. The painful break-up ballad, "Another Small Thing In Her Favour" and countrified confessional closer, "Saving The Good Stuff For You" both revolve around Thompson's unmistakably excellent acoustic guitar work, while "The Snow Goose," a bitter tale of uncertainty, it goes completely unplugged, with just Thompson's guitar, hurdy-gurdy and voiceaugmented, at times, by guest Alison Krauss' suitably fragile harmony vocals.
But overall, Electric is a harder-edged record that, despite no extended guitar workoutsunlike live, Thompson is the epitome of economy in the studiostill features plenty of his idiosyncratic playing, his visceral bends continuing to stem more from Uilleann pipes than rock and roll sources, right from the opening track, "Stony Ground," a tale of love not just lost, but beaten up and left in the gutter to bleed out. Thompson may, indeed, have eclectic interests, having explored everything from flat-out rock and roll on Daring Adventures (Polydor, 1986) to Zydeco on Hand of Kindness (Hannibal, 1983), but in recent years he's settled more firmly on the British-inflected folk-rock that he first helped innovate with Fairport Convention in the early part of his career, albeit still the product of a broadminded artist whose 1000 Years of Popular Music (Beeswing, 2003) covered everything from Madrigals and Cole Porter to Ray Davies and...Britney Spears.
Or so it seems. While there's a delicious eclectic consistency to the single-disc edition of Electric, the deluxe two-disc edition demonstrates that it's a matter of choice not change. Seven additional tracks range from the rockin' country of "Will You Dance, Charlie Boy" and the poignant acoustic ballad "I Found a Stray"one of a number of tracks on both discs that feature renowned fiddler Stuart Duncanto the mandolin-driven "The Tic-Tac Man," the tale of a drunken murderer, "Auldie Riggs," which first appeared on Thompson's independently released, wryly self-proclaimed "folkatorio," Cabaret of Souls (Beeswing, 2012), and a live version of 16th century Italian composer Orazio Vecchi's "So Ben Mi Ch'a Bon Tempo," first heard on the two-song, bonus disc limited first run of The Old Kit Bag, and later revived on 1000 Years of Popular Music and Live at the BBC.
What Miller brings to the table is the grungiest sound ever heard on a Thompson record. With the producer's own grittily overdriven rhythm guitar adding to the density, Jerome's drums are also processed into something somehow thick and massive; even his cymbals seem mired in muck and mud, especially on "Stony Ground" and the linear-driven "Sally B." Even on the gentler tunes like "Salford Sunday" and "My Enemy," a dark ballad that, with soft backing vocals by Siobhan Maher Kennedy, is a biting tale of unexplained acrimony, the sound is often murky, but in a way that fits the subject matter perfectly and doesn't sacrifice clarity when needed, just as Miller did with Plant's bottom-heavy Band of Joy.
Thompson has, in recent years, finally emerged as the true singer/songwriting hero that those who've followed him all along knew he's been since Henry The Human Fly (Island, 1972), a suitably eccentric solo debut that made its mark more auspiciously as the worst selling album in the history of Warner Bros. (who released it Stateside). With Electric following on the heels of Dream Attic, the nearly 64 year-old guitarist/vocalist is still managing to up his ante.
Few singer/songwriters have maintained a career as consistently noteworthy as Thompson, but if the concept of consistency, for some, means a gradual descent into dull predictability, Thompson has achieved exactly the opposite. Almost always appearing at the top of his game, rather than plateauing out Thompson's pinnacle has always seemed just out of reach, meaning that instead of creative flat-lining he's been on a relentlessly upward trajectory. Electric is just one more example of how it's possible to stay true to your muse while, at the same time, always ensuring your game is raised.
Track Listing: CD1 (The Original Album): Stony Ground; Salford Sunday; Sally B; Stuck On Treadmill; My Enemy; Good Things Happen To Bad People; Where's Home; Another Small Thing In Her Favour; Straight And Narrow; The Snow Goose; Saving The Good Stuff For You. CD2 (Bonus Tracks): Will You Dance, Charlie Boy; I Found a Stray; The Rival; The Tic-Tac Man; Auldie Riggs; Auldie Riggs Dance; So Ben Mi Ch'a Bon Tempo.
Personnel: Richard Thompson: guitar, vocals, accordion (CD1, CD2#1-4), keyboard (CD1, CD2#1-4), mandolin (CD1, CD2#1-4), hurdy-gurdy (CD1, CD2#1-4); Taras Prodaniuk: bass, mandocello and harmony vocals (CD1, CD2#1-4); Michael Jerome: drums (CD1, CD2#1-4), percussion (CD1, CD2#1-4, CD2#7), harmony vocals (CD1, CD2#1-4) Dennis Crouch: bass (CD1, CD2#1-4); Stuart Duncan: violin (CD1, CD2#1-4); Buddy Miller: guitar (CD1, CD2#1-4); Siobhan Maher Kennedy: harmony vocal (CD1#2, CD1#5, CD1#7, CD1#9, CD1#11, CD2#3); Alison Krauss: harmony vocals (CD1#10), David Piltch: double bass (CD2#5-6), Debra Dobkin: percussion (CD2#5-6); Pete Zorn: flute (CD2#5-6); Judith Owen: vocals (CD2#7).
Record Label: Newwest Records
Style: Beyond Jazz