Richard Thompson – Still and Variations [TrackList follows] – Fantasy/Beeswing, FAN-37477-02, 50:46, 25:05 (CD + EP CD) [6/23/15] ****:
(Richard Thompson – vocals, guitar, accordion, ukulele, mandolin, producer (CD 2); Taras Prodaniuk – bass, backing vocals (CD 2: tracks 1-5); Teddy Thompson – backing vocals, (CD 2: tracks 1-5); Michael Jerome – drums, percussion; Jim Elkington – guitar, piano; Jeff Tweedy – producer, engineer, mixing, guitar, fretless Marxophone zither, mellotron, guitorgan (CD 1); Liam Cunningham – harmony vocals (CD 1: tracks 3, 5, 7, 12); Sima Cunningham – harmony vocals (CD 1: tracks 2-3, 5, 7); Siobhan Kennedy – harmony vocals (CD 1: tracks 1, 8-10))
English singer/songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson is at the age when he’s considered a legacy artist. Examples include Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt and Leonard Cohen, who have a history of music-making, album releases, tours and who maintain a sizable fan base. Thompson isn’t an arena-filler, but there’s no doubt he’s well-respected; sustains a creative output which is always in top form; and provides material which attracts his supportive enthusiasts. Thompson returns with his 50-minute, 12-track outing, Still, which follows in the footsteps of Acoustic Classics (2014) and Electric (2013). Like he did with Electric, Thompson has issued Still in two compact disc configurations: as a single CD and as a deluxe 2-CD edition with a 25-minute, 5-track bonus EP. This review refers to the deluxe edition. Still is also available as a high-quality digital download or as a vinyl LP.
This time out, things are a bit different than on previous albums. Such as he did for Electric, Thompson turned to a fellow musician to produce. On Electric he chose Buddy Miller (see Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, others). For Still, Thompson used Wilco leader Jeff Tweedy, who’s made a career shifting between roots-oriented and rock-inclined music. Tweedy and Thompson have known each other for about two decades, so this collaboration has an instinctive aspect. Thankfully, Tweedy abides by Thompson’s intentions. While Still is a tad more adventurous than both Acoustic Classics and Electric, there isn’t any of the production artifice from Wilco’s records such as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Nor is there any of the slightly rangy tone which Miller furnished. This is music which is pure Thompson: economical and unmodified. The production places Thompson’s songs and guitar at the forefront from start to finish. There are nuances and details which pepper most tunes, but nothing ever gets in the way of Thompson’s vocals and fine guitar. Providing rhythmic support are the other members of the Richard Thompson Trio: drummer Michael Jerome Moore and bassist Taras Prodaniuk (who were also involved with Electric). Tweedy slips in a few instrumental touches to bolster some cuts. Thompson discusses his new music and his creative process during a six-minute promo video, which has in-studio clips from some of his latest material.
Thompson easily dips between acoustic and electric arrangements throughout Still. Thompson supplies cohesiveness to the song sequencing, which is a testament to how he approaches songwriting. On opener “She Never Could Resist a Winding Road,” Thompson utilizes acoustic and electric guitar, as he sings about a rambling woman who “could never stay any place too long, not to be standing still is where she belongs.” Thompson’s melodicism is front and center on another tale of a wandering personality, “Beatnik Walking,” where the Dutch protagonist takes the path to his local drinking hole, mentions various facets of living in Amsterdam, and reflects on his past. One of the most beautiful items is the character study, “Josephine,” a pensive examination of longing and hope. Twinned acoustic guitars supplement Thompson’s poetic lyrics about Josephine’s tiny words written on a wall. Tweedy layers some nicely-shaded instrumental tweaks into several key numbers.
The wonderfully wrought “Broken Doll” has understated embellishments which drift up out of the background, including lightly-distorted electric guitar, percussive effects, and what seems to be either a digitally-enhanced zither or a mandolin. Things get lively during the upfront, electric rocker, “Long John Silver,” about the black-hearted pirate. Fans of Thompson’s stellar electric guitar will amply enjoy his soloing on this track. Hopefully, Thompson will add this to his concert set-list, since it’s certain to be a crowd pleaser. There’s also a natural, upbeat quality to the robust “No Peace, No End,” where Thompson notes the need for people to have empathy for those who are different than they are. If someone wants to truly experience Thompson’s guitar endeavors, then they should skip ahead to the end and listen to the almost-eight-minute, autobiographical medley, “Guitar Heroes,” where Thompson capably flits between lyrics about his life and songs penned or made famous by gypsy-jazz artist Django Reinhardt; pop/country ace six-stringer Les Paul; early rock and rollers Chuck Berry and Dale Hawkins; and the UK instrumental band the Shadows (that group’s Hank Marvin influenced a generation of up-and-coming English rock guitarists). While the arrangement has a knotty stop-start layout which doesn’t have an organic flow, it’s sure a lot of fun to hear.
The five-song Variations EP isn’t a throwaway. Thompson produced the EP with a straightforward nature and stout temperament. First number, the electric and rocking “Fork in the Road,” could clearly have fit onto Still. Thompson initially introduced this while touring (and although it was unknown at the time, it quickly became talked about by audiences) and fortunately he put this onto tape so everyone could appreciate it. There’s an equal amount of amped-up enthusiasm on the self-deprecating “Wounding Myself,” about a hurtful individual whom Thompson decides is not worth troubling with anymore. Thompson stretches out on “Don’t Take It Lying Down,” a nearly seven-minute piece where he takes an extended guitar improvisation at the end. On the other selections, he hints at an older musical past. The dark and macabre story, “The May Queen,” mentions the English May Day tradition when, according to some folklore, the May Queen was killed when the festivities were over. Although this is primarily a modern arrangement, there are intimations of English folk music in the structure. UK folk music is prominent on the EP’s last cut, “Fergus Laing,” about a rogue who prefers to live life in a ramshackle way, hanging out in the park rather than a visiting a museum, and has a wild mop of hair.
CD 1: She Never Could Resist a Winding Road; Beatnik Walking; Patty Don’t You Put Me Down; Broken Doll; All Buttoned Up; Josephine; Long John Silver; Pony in the Stable; Where’s Your Heart; No Peace, No End; Dungeons for Eyes; Guitar Heroes
CD 2: Fork in the Road; Wounding Myself; The May Queen; Don’t Take It Lying Down; Fergus Laing
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