Richard Thompson – Electric [Deluxe CD] – New West/Proper

Richard Thompson – Electric [Deluxe CD] – New West/ Proper PRPCDX108, 50:01; bonus disc: 25:07 ****:

(Richard Thompson – accordion, guitar, hurdy-gurdy, keyboards, mandolin, vocals; Buddy Miller – producer, mixer, guitar; Dennis Crouch – bass; Stuart Duncan – fiddle; Michael Jerome Moore – drums, percussion, backing vocals; Alison Krauss (track 10), Siobhan Maher-Kennedy (track 5) – harmony vocals; Taras Prodaniuk – bass, mandocello, backing vocals)

One thing you can say about singer/songwriter Richard Thompson: During a career which stretches back to the late 1960s (he was a founding member of folk-rock act Fairport Convention before he became a solo artist) Thompson has always been consistent without resorting to cliché. He’s released over 20 solo records, six highly regarded collaborations with his then-wife Linda Thompson, miscellaneous live projects, various fan-club undertakings, several compilations, numerous singles, and there are more than a few tribute anthologies (not to mention the long list of musicians who have translated his songs on stage and in the studio). Along the way, he’s earned songwriting awards, gotten lifetime achievement recognition, and has been distinguished by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

Thompson’s last album was 2010’s concert vehicle, Dream Attic, which unusually presented new material via a live setting. For his latest, Electric, Thompson convened at Buddy Miller’s homey Nashville studio, to create music which has a lived-in feel, performed by his standing trio (drummer Michael Jerome Moore and bassist Taras Prodaniuk) with assorted studio pros and friends, who bring depth to certain tunes. Electric was issued in a variety of formats, including both single and double-CD versions, as an LP, and as digital downloads. This review refers to the deluxe CD edition, with a 25-minute bonus disc.

Thompson continues to have a knack for storytelling with often dark humor. That is apparent on brash opener “Stony Ground,” a toughly confident cut fronted by Thompson and Miller’s twinned, grumbling and rumbling guitars. On “Stony Ground,” sexual obsession runs rampant, with “old man Morris,” who “Got it bad last week/Fell for the widow from across the street.” The young lady doesn’t want much to do with a “silly old man with his teeth all gone,” and by the end Morris is in the gutter dripping with blood, beat up by a brother, a henchman and a pair of London Zoo gorillas. The motif of women prevailing, who are stronger than those around them, or who search for better lives, permeates several other tracks. There’s the fortified Southern rocker “Sally B,” which focuses on a belle from below the Mason-Dixon line, whose steely blue eyes, downhome drawl and smile can hypnotize any man. While Thompson’s six-string skills are often relegated to his tours, here Thompson shakes up the fretboard and reminds listeners he can play with dexterity. Initial single “Good Things Happen to Bad People” (another amped-up number) features a disappointed wife who cried the day she walked down the aisle, and who finds happiness with a finer man while deceiving her cuckolded husband. Thompson’s poignant side comes to the foreground on “Another Small Thing in Her Favour,” one of various quieter compositions where electric and acoustic instruments combine. The emotional first-person narrative, told in the voice of a disillusioned spouse who coolly watches his partner and their children leave, is an earnest example of resignation and pathos. Thompson goes all-acoustic on sensitive “The Snow Goose,” where he accompanies himself on tender acoustic guitar, with Alison Krauss on ethereal harmony vocals. Here, the male protagonist decides it is best to dream about love than take a chance on the reality of a broken heart. “The Snow Goose” is a reminder of how easily and masterfully Thompson can turn pessimism into beauty. Country closer “Saving the Good Stuff for You” has a similar shape, with acoustic guitar and Stuart Duncan’s bluegrass-tinged fiddle underscoring the account of a gray-haired fellow who has concluded his rambunctious days (“I could never resist life’s temptations/They just seemed to fall in my way”) but is ready to be become a better person. It is the kind of turnaround commentary Thompson is adept at, and he fittingly submits such a testament to respite after other avenues of romance and relationship have been previously explored.

Producer Buddy Miller (whose résumé also includes Robert Plant, Solomon Burke and Jimmie Dale Gilmore as well as a long association with Emmylou Harris) provides a gritty soulful tone to Electric. While there are moments of nuanced detail (notably during “The Snow Goose” and “Another Small Thing in Her Favour”), mostly Miller concentrates on feel over perfection. Sometimes there is a cocky, garage-rock bent (specifically the Farfisa-organ fueled “Straight and Narrow”) and often there is a sense of friends having a good time who just happen to be near recording equipment, a comfortable situation which Thompson explains during a short promo video.

The seven-track bonus disc is no mere throwaway of odds and ends: Thompson’s too talented to create inferior work. Thompson is noted for dispensing windfall material via his website, fan base mailings, and so on. The supplementary disc for Electric is a continuation of that appreciation. There is upfront and upbeat country, such “Will You Dance, Charlie Boy,” about an elderly bloke who still can tear up the dancefloor, even if the seat of his pants are worn and drooping. Duncan’s fiddle is a star of this tune, and he also adds punch to the affecting acoustic ballad, “I Found a Stray,” about a starving, trembling and troubled woman adopted by a stranger. But the good guy discovers, “Whatever life she had to live/It was a life of moving on. I woke up one day to find/My little stray had come and gone.” Thompson also delivers a mini-suite, the thematically-linked “Auldie Riggs” and “Auldie Riggs Dance,” initally offered on the online-only Thompson conceptual record, Cabaret of Souls (2012). The primary piece is a disturbing ditty about a serial killer sailor who strangles, stabs, or dissolves victims in lye. It’s gruesome, well-written and not easily forgotten. The second, instrumental section is the dying seaman’s dance of celebration in honor of his nefarious deeds. Thompson concludes with a choice cover, an Italian folk song, “So Ben Mi Ch’a Bon Tempo,” by Orazio Vecchi, which dates to the 16th century: this can also be heard on Thompson’s 2003 live document, 1000 Years of Popular Music (also available only online through Thompson’s website).


CD 1:  Stony Ground; Salford Sunday; Sally B; Stuck on the 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

Bonus disc:  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

—Doug Simpson

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