Monday, February 18, 2013

Richard Thompson "Electric" (4.5*)

I have nothing left to say/But I'm going to say it anyway is the opening line in Randy Newman’s I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It), a song that heads into the final choruses with the observation that Everything I write, all sounds the same/Each record that I'm making is like a record that I made/Just not as good.

Neither statement is in any danger of applying to a Richard Thompson album, and particularly not to his latest Buddy Miller-produced folk-power trio effort with Thompson’s electric and acoustic guitar work firing on all cylinders as Taras Prodaniuk on bass and Michael Jerome on drums pound away in the rhythm section he’s used for the best part of a decade.

It’s difficult to avoid the impression that Thompson goes out of his way to come up with a different format to use when it’s time to record a new batch of songs. There’s his Cabaret of Souls: a Folk Oratorio, a piece originally commissioned by the International Society of Bassists who wanted something that featured the double bass and ran for around six minutes and ended up getting a song cycle. Cast your eye back a little further and there’s Dream Attic, recorded live on tour with the same rhythm section and additional instrumentation from the versatile Pete Zorn and electric violinist Joel Zifkin.

2007’s Sweet Warrior had a few different players, and followed 2005’s Front Parlour Ballads, recorded at home with RT playing everything apart from the percussion provided by 1000 Years of Popular Music colleague Debra Dobkin. Skip back past Live from Austin, TX and the cottage industry live releases for the merch table (The Chrono Show, Faithless, recorded as far back as 1985, Ducknapped, 1000 Years of Popular Music, More Guitar from Washington D.C. in 1988) and you’re back in 2003 with The Old Kit Bag.

Five studio albums, a song cycle along with half a dozen assorted live titles in various settings (I failed to mention Live Warrior in that run through, make that seven) represent a fair swag of product for a single decade and suggests a canny operator who takes care to vary what he’s going to place out there in the market place, with a couple of box sets in there for good measure.

So you’d figure heading off to Nashville to record in Buddy Miller’s living room was part of a deliberate policy of doing something a little different for each new release, something to talk about in the promotional interviews as much as a conscious pursuit of interesting sonic possibilities. Along with the aforementioned rhythm section, Electric features some unobtrusive rhythm guitar from Miller, fiddle from Stuart Duncan as well as vocal support from bluegrass sweetheart Alison Krauss and Anglo-Irish Siobhan Mayer Kennedy, wife of Miller's engineer.

Recorded on analogue tape rather than digital media over just four days after a brief rehearsal (it pays to have had some of the new material in the live set for a while) with most tracks only needing a couple of takes and minimal of overdubbing, Electric comes across warm and crisp from the flurry of handclaps and thumping percussion that launches Stoney Ground, a stomping romp through the obsessions of a toothless unashamedly lust-filled pensioner who falls for a widowed neighbour and her “honey pot”, gets beaten up by the widow’s sons for his trouble and ends up lying, dripping with blood, dripping with snot, but he’s still dreaming of her you-know-what.

“People over 55,” Thompson points out, “still have urges,” though one’s not sure how closely such things approximate the regulation searing guitar solo that comes with the track’s play-out.

Bawdy English folksong meets greasy, grimy rock ‘n’ roll, is followed by a turn into more sedate territory with Salford Sunday, an impressionist number set in the same dreary town and similar circumstances to those that inspired Ewan MacColl's Dirty Old Town where the narrator wakes up with a morning head, the Sunday papers and recollections of a Saturday night that could have been better. There’s a gentle lilt, a dash of regretful whimsy, but in the end it’s a dreary northern town he’ll be glad to be out of.

Apparently Thompson met the model for Sally B at a fundraising event, and it’s here that the power trio really comes into play, with definite lashings of Cream in the interplay between Jerome’s drums and bassist Taras Prodaniuk as Thompson delivers a scathing assessment of an attractive, ambitious and exploitative opportunist (Who needs books when you've got them looks, Sally B?).

The power trio thunder continues Stuck On The Treadmill, with the beefy riff merging heavy metal and Celtic elements as Jerome thumps away and Thompson addresses the frustrations of a working class existence in hard times.

After that pounding a change of pace arrives with a delicate My Enemy with ethereal harmonies from Siobhan Maher Kennedy as Thompson reflects on the symbiotic relationship a bloke has with his nominal nemesis. There’s something lurking in the distant past that has left two stubborn old men each waiting for the other to make the first move towards a reconciliation that would, at least in my reading of things, undermine the relentless rivalry that, ironically, is the thing that keeps both of them going.

While the title suggests Good Things Happen To Bad People Thompson goes to some length to assert that this is a temporary state of affairs and looks forward to the possibility of a serve of schadenfreude (that’s pleasure derived from another's misfortunes, just to save you reaching for the dictionary) when the Jezebel who cried the day I walked you down the aisle gets her eventual comeuppance.

After the bile and bitterness that has gone before, Where's Home? comes across all bright, breezy and bluegrassy with Appalachian fiddle, yearning harmonies and jaunty guitar work. Ultimately, however, it’s an intermission rather than an escape as Thompson returns to the territory he works best in Another Small Thing In Her Favour.

There’s a husband assessing the ticks and crosses, the algebra of a failing relationship as his wife leaves home (Still, she kissed me once more/ As she gently slammed the door) a gently painful study of a breakup, a portrait of the about to be abandoned partner watching her go in a complex tangle of emotions. Sure, she’s leaving, but she’s doing it with a degree of tact and diplomatic sensitivity. He might be devastated, but there’s a certain degree of well, it could have been worse.

Straight And Narrow heads towards sixties garage rock, though your average garage guitarist probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with something like Thompson’s quicksilver solo, and the average garage lyricist wouldn’t have been able to come up with the image of a woman whose conformity (she walks the straight and narrow) is matched by a grim determination to ensure everyone around her does the same (she’s got eyes in the back of her head).

Delicate fingerpicking and understated but still heart-wrenching ghostly harmonies from Alison Krauss give the dreamlike The Snow Goose a charm that launches the ballad into the same territory Thompson explored in Waltzing's for Dreamers, From Galway to Graceland and Woods of Darnay. Sparse, achingly tender, and a reminder of just how good Thompson is as a lyricist in a setting where there’s nothing to draw the listener’s attention away from the words and the atmosphere.

I’ve had wives and I’ve treated them badly/And maybe a lover or two is the admission early on in Saving The Good Stuff For You, the Celtic waltz that brings the album proper to a close with an aging bloke who’s been around (I’ve seen trouble from every direction / My old head is peppered with gray / I could never resist life’s temptations / Oh, they just seemed to fall in my way), is about to embark on a new relationship and wants the new partner to realise he still has something to offer.

That’s it for the album proper, but the Deluxe version comes with the regulation serve of bonus tracks, a rocking Will You Dance, Charlie Boy with a great fiddle solo from Stuart Duncan that probably didn’t fit with the overall sequence of the album, while I Found a Stray would probably have been one too many in the slow ones department. I might be wrong, but I’d assume The Rival and The Tic-Tac Man were considered for the album proper but didn’t make the cut because there were other contenders that fitted (or, I suspect, worked) better. There’s some flow over from other projects in Auldie Riggs and
Auldie Riggs Dance, both of which are part of the Cabaret of Souls song cycle and, again the 1000 Years of Popular Music So Ben Mi Ca Bon Tempo.

The consensus around the traps seems to rate Electric as Thompson’s best studio work since 1999‘s Mock Tudor, which may well be true, but I’m inclined towards the view that this particular what’ll I try this time has worked better than the previous couple.

It’s not as if, after forty-five years’ worth of writing that has produced a remarkably consistent body of very high quality work, you’re going to come across anything new or radically different on a new Richard Thompson album, and you’re not likely to mistake him for anyone else or anyone else for him either.

You can place a substantial tick beside Buddy Miller’s name in the production department, since Electric is a mighty fine sounding recording, but based on the assumption that we’ll be looking at something different for the next studio project you might not expect him to be occupying that chair next time.

Assuming you’ve been aboard for a while there’s nothing here you haven’t sort of heard before. The guitar solos spark and arc, with emotional intensity to go with the pyrotechnics, the lyrics are immaculately crafted expressions of recurring themes and cautionary tales, the melodies remain simple, concise and affecting, the arrangements and the backing from an impeccable rhythm section well, um, impeccable and the recording sounds clean, crisp and live.

You might be inclined to disregard something that would attract an overall comment like here’s another excellent Richard Thompson album, but consider underlining that another, switching the excellent into italics and ponder the following, which puts it better than I could hope to.

Richard Thompson, in the words of one rather perceptive reviewer, is what you hope all of your favourite young artists will age into, but rarely do.

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