You gotta feel for someone who doesn't own any Bob Dylan or Neil Young albums and hasn't a clue where to start. There are too many choices: Early or recent? Electric or acoustic? Live or studio? They end up purchasing a 'best of' set which never makes anybody happy.
Richard Thompson's vital Electric, to be released February 5, resembles many of its predecessors as an output for his versatility and craftsmanship. But it is unique as it provides an entry point for those who have heard there is something going on with Thompson and just don't know what it is.
Ever since ending the tour in support of his last album, 2010's Dream Attic, Thompson has been woodshedding a power trio format during some spot gigs and two years as featured artists on the Cayamo Cruise. This will change this year as the trio (Thompson backed by bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome ) are going out on the road this year and will open for several dates on the upcoming Emmy Lou Harris/Rodney Crowell tour.
Thompson's deep catalogue always attracts preferences for different parts of the ouevre. So for those of us who favor his electric playing the trio hits a particular sweet spot. These protracted solos are put in the proper no-distraction context, listening to them can take you to a place in guitar heaven that isn't visible to most mortals. Having seen six on-board trio shows I was ready for the new album to approach the depth and breadth of Hendrix' Electric Ladyland.
But despite its title Electric is not a power trio record. There are no solo acoustic guitar tracks but there is still a healthy share of the slow and subtle. (Among these "Salford Sunday" includes one of Thompson's most affecting vocal performances). So "electric" is more of an adjective, a descriptor of the what the album is on a general level rather than an accurate label of its ingredients.
Thompson fans aside from the strict acoustic partisans will love the pants off of this record from the very first notes of the opener, "Stony Ground." There is the rushed tempo, the crisp, distinctive guitar tone driven by an appropriation of traditional Celtic sounds. Name your favorite rock guitarists, and see that despite their diversity they all cut their teeth on American blues records. Thompson's roots are elsewhere, which results in a disorientation of what we perceive of rock and roll. As a result many people hearing his music for the first time may not really get it. But after a while it makes sense, especially when the blues-based stuff starts to sound the same.
On Cayamo 2012 Thompson was one artist who didn't repeat a single song during his four sets, but this year presented different versions of the same songs to different audiences. He seemed to be breaking in the material and trying it on for size, getting the new songs ready for prime time. Fans will take it either way, since his soloing takes on a life of his own you can't really predict what will come next. And you get the feeling that Thompson isn't too sure either.
He gets a little bluesy with "Sally B" although not enough to shake the Celtic identity. As a "what if," this is what the Jimi Hendrix Experience would have sounded like if Noel Redding was from Seattle and Hendrix from Ireland instead of the other way around.
The album's guitar centerpiece is, appropriately, smack in its center. "Good Things Happen to Bad People," track six, is a midtempo stomp that will earn its way into his repertoire as a highlight as it provides a framework on which Thompson can hang his improvisation. That is the best part of seeing him in concert, how each song takes on a life of its own and can be 180 degrees from the version in the last set.
"Saving the Good Stuff For You" closes the album, a waltz-time love song that he has written versions of throughout the years. Not that there's anything wrong with that. We find comfort in a routine, so hearing a new song that's similar to an old one can be reassuring. If there isn't anything here that would be out of place on another Thompson album there is no sense of repetition. Some artists who have not achieved commercial success may keep releasing the same album until they catch on, but listening to Thompson is like walking through a river because everything changes each time.
There is a bonus disk included, which isn't discussed here because it wasn't included in the advance copies that Thompson hand-carried onto the Cayamo Cruise and offered for presale. I can report that one of the bonus tracks, "Will You Dance Charlie Boy," is one happy little toe-tapper.
Electric was recorded last Spring in a home studio belonging to Buddy Miller, who also produced the record. As a producer Buddy has a light touch, seemingly rolling tape and letting the music proceed organically. So it all sounds pretty loose. Miller lets the songs breathe, which is probably why it feels so fresh. Thompson and Miller have forged a close friendship on the last three Cayamo sailings, evolving into a cross-oceanic partnership that explores their respective legacies. The best artists take something complicated and make it look easy.
While he doesn't approach their commercial success Thompson is in the same league with artists like Dylan and Young. They continue to release compelling new records while musical archeologists are always digging out alternate performances and outtakes from throughout their career. When someone is that good there is no bottom.
But neither Dylan nor Young are likely to release an album as hospitable as Electric. For that you need to go back to Harvest or Blood on the Tracks. With this record Thompson offers an on-ramp for the uninitiated that also gives long term fans something to cherish.
photos: Charlie Bermant
Charlie Bermant has written about music since forever, and has collected the best of his interviews in A Serious Hobby, which is available here.