RICHARD THOMPSON’ S ELECTRIC
British guitarist’s brilliant new Buddy Miller-produced album Unassigned
You would think that Richard Thompson – so often praised as one of the world’s greatest guitarists – would be happy to trade a few of his consistently excellent reviews for a ‘hit’ album. Great reviews do not pay the rent. Then again, there must be many more musicians who would happily trade a few gold or platinum records for the reverence that Thompson inspires. Luckily, Thompson has enough of a fervent fan base and reputation to ensure his career will be thriving even if he never threatens Lady Ga Ga in the sales department.
Last year Thompson accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting at the Americana Awards in Nashville with some bemusement, wondering what a Brit was doing there.
Earlier in the evening he had ripped out a stunning lead guitar part on ‘Green Onions’ with a the house band that included the great Booker T and the producer of Electric, Buddy Miller. Thompson’s music, while essentially born of the British folk scene from which he first emerged, crosses a lot of borders. From Galway to Graceland, as one of his famous songs goes.
Yet in the 41 years since his first solo recording, Thompson has never changed his basic approach – despite the fact that some of his producers might have tried over the years to give him a more contemporary sound.
Electric is yet another album that will delight Thompson’s long-time fans and perhaps win him some more attention because of its recording location in Nashville and the enlistment of Buddy Miller, himself a multiple Americana Award winner.
The fact that Miller is also a formidable guitarist in his own right (he adds rhythm here) and has worked with Robert Plant, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin (whose last album he also produced) means that he not only highlights Thompson’s playing but also ensures that it does not overshadow his equally distinctive vocals. There is also a lovely interplay amongst the other instruments – it is not all Stratocaster frenzy. The production is amongst the best of Thompson’s career.
Thompson lets loose some fiery solos in front of a powerful studio band that includes drummer Michael Jerome, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. Thompson himself has humorously described the music as ‘a cross between Judy Collins and Bootsy Collins’ – or, as he calls it, ‘folk funk.’
However you choose to describe the music, it is unmistakably and distinctively Thompson’s own sound; he is one of those rare and great guitarists to have been able to forge his own voice. As soon as you hear the first few seconds of ‘Good Things Happen To Bad People’ here, you know it cannot be anyone else. I don’t think there is any other guitarist at present who can emulate his sound.
But it would be a mistake to view Thompson’s appeal as solely being in his electric guitar virtuosity. Sure, there are classic Thompson up beat moments (folk rockers?) in abundance here: ‘Where’s Home,’ “Straight And Narrow,’ ‘Stony Ground,’ ‘Sally B’ (with its off kilter backbeat) and ‘Stuck On The Treadmill.’
Apart from his ability to dazzle with the electric guitar, Thompson can equally apply the acoustic to conjure up some powerful emotions with his ballads. Here one gets the full sense of the poetry of his lyrics, which often take on interesting twists and turns. There is a darker side to Thompson than at first meets the ear!
What might ostensibly sound like a love song has a much deeper meaning. In ‘The Snow Goose,’ which has Alison Krauss on harmony vocals, he writes of a woman who might be ‘pale and rare and footloose, with the joys that tempt me’ but who could ‘soon turn and kick and stab.’
‘Salford Sunday’ is hardly an endorsement of the location as he sings, ‘hate to leave this ugly town.’ On ‘My Enemy’ he asks of a friend, ‘does hate help you get through the day?’
‘Another Small Thing In Her Favour’ sounds like a lovely tribute until you hear Thompson sing: ‘Got the kids in the car /Dreams will get you just so far / Then life gives you bitter pills to savour /Still she kissed me once more /As she gently slammed the door / That’s Another Small Thing In Her Favour.’ Definitely not a song to add to your Valentine’s Day mix tape!
On the album’s closer, ‘Saving The Good Stuff For You,’ the protagonist confesses that he got his bad habits ‘out of my system’ and ‘all the time I didn’t know it, I was saving the good stuff for you.’ You don’t know whether to laugh or cry!
Electric is another fine addition to Richard Thompson’s catalogue and should surely enhance his reputation. Here is one ‘veteran’ musician whose music is still as vital as ever.