CD review – Richard Thompson “Electric”
Electric, which someone calculated to be Richard Thompson‘s 40th release, features the English folk-rock icon in a power trio setting, with plenty of power provided by drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk, both of whom have been playing with Thompson for some time now. Nashville resident Buddy Miller, one of alt-country’s most popular singers, songwriters and guitarists, produced the album in his home studio with minimal overdubs and a small handful of guests. The results add up to an album that I immediately like better than any Thompson studio release since 1999’s Mock Tudor. It has a fresh, vibrant and organic feel to it, not surprising given that the 16 songs from which the 11 on the basic album were selected were laid down in four days. (It’s also available in an expanded deluxe edition with more tracks.)
And it’s a strong set of songs – overall as strong as anything he’s done in years. The rockers rock indeed, starting with the opening track “Stony Ground.” The sound here is reminiscent of Miller’s award-winning work with Robert Plant, both solo and with Alison Krauss, and it’s heavy on the percussion, with Jerome’s kit, a tambourine, handclaps and possibly more driving the rhythm. There’s something droning in the background of this gleefully nasty song about a man’s willingness to humiliate himself for his lust – an organ, accordion, melodica, I can’t quite make it out yet. “Stuck On The Treadmill” treads familiar ground for Thompson, last visited on his jazzy duo album with bassist Danny Thompson (no relation) Industry – the plight of the blue-collar working stiff. It’s an explicitly Brit-folk-rock modal tune and arrangement, the guitar riffs and tone reminiscent of “Backstreet Slide,” for example. “Straight and Narrow” employs good old rock ‘n’ roll to paint a picture of a vampish female, as Thompson’s rumbling, distorted guitar trades licks with what sounds like a Farfisa organ (nice touch!). I can easily imagine Gene Vincent singing this one, perhaps backed by the similarly roaring guitar histrionics of Link Wray. My favorite of the rockers is “Sally B,” an RT rarity in that it actually has some blues in its DNA. This is entirely a trio piece, and the three musicians really gel, Prodaniuk’s bass doubling RT’s vocals on the chorus, and a really killer (though short) guitar solo on the outro. I still don’t know what this one’s about; early guesses are either a class-crossing love song or a sly commentary on the U.S. mortgage crisis.
In interviews leading up to the release of Electric Thompson talked about what he called a ’60s-style funky sound on the recording, and joked about creating a new genre, funk folk. I knew what he was talking about when I first heard this recording of “Good Things Happen To Bad People.” I’d previously heard the song once or twice when Thompson sang a solo acoustic version of it in concert in the past couple of years, but not like this. Think “Purple Rain”-era Prince on this arrangement of a sly song about a betraying lover – big sing-along chorus, layers of acoustic guitars behind Thompson’s chiming electric and the rhythm section’s dancefloor-filling beat.
Speaking of the ’80s, take a listen to “Where’s Home.” This one sounds to me like a tribute to REM (who covered his “Wall Of Death” on a ’90s tribute disc), back when they were alt-rockers on the American college scene. This pensive number, perhaps inspired by a musician’s rootless life, is filled out by layers of sound from Thompson’s chiming electric guitar, some strummed acoustics and a mandolin, plus fiddle from guest Stuart Duncan and harmony vocals from Siobhan Maher Kennedy.
In spite of the album’s title, it’s not all amplified, electric rock. The second track, in fact, is a lovely ’60s-inspired ballad titled “Salford Sunday,” with Thompson fingerpicking a plugged-in acoustic and dubbing in a mandolin. Even though the subject matter deals with romantic disappointment in a dreary Manchester suburb, it’s a warm, endearing song, with lovely harmony vocals from Kennedy, a jaunty melody and lots of rattling and clattering percussion.
Another acoustic ballad, “Another Small Thing In Her Favor,” is typical Thompson with a slightly different twist. Its unreliable narrator is a guy whose wife is walking out the door and driving away with kids in tow, as he deceives himself into believing it’ll all work out for the best. Thompson engages in some deliciously funny writing on what is, at base, a sad song of impending heartache, as the protagonist sees hope in the way “she gently slammed the door,” and gives him a peck and says goodbye as she eases out the clutch. “My Enemy” has no such stirrings of humor in it, at all. It’s a brooding study of a relationship between a man and his antagonist; perhaps a doppelganger or his own inner demons. Kennedy perfectly harmonizes with him on the chorus of “My enemy, how I need my enemy.” The only ray of light in the song is when Thompson concludes, “At the end of the day, it’s still too much effort to hate / my enemy…”
Dark and cold likewise is “The Snow Goose,” an acoustic ballad of bittersweet love, as the protagonist longs for a “northern girl” who returns nothing but coldness. This fellow could almost be an earlier version of the bitter old man who’s “scared of loving,” in Thompson’s lovely “Burns Supper.” Alison Krauss with her slightly warm and rounded singing voice was a perfect choice to sing harmony on this one, which features nothing else but Thompson’s voice and guitar and the haunting, scratchy moans of a hurdy-gurdy.
And that brings me to the final track. It is, of all things, a country song called “Saving The Good Stuff For You.” It’s not surprising that RT would do a country song on an album recorded in Nashville; he’s long had an affinity for the genre and has covered several Hank Williams tunes and other country standards. But “Good Stuff” is another rarity for Thompson, a love song that is at least 99 percent free of darkness, shadow or irony. It’s a lilting, upbeat waltz, when most of Thompson’s waltzes are sad. It’s the most Dylanish song I can recall Thompson performing, too, with a strong Americana feel and sung in a slightly dry, roughed-up voice, sounding his age. I absolutely love it, and it’s also bound to endear him to Nashville even more.
Richard Thompson has never put out a “bad” album, although some are more quirky than others and some might have more limited appeal. These days even the mainstream media are comparing him favorably to Dylan and Neil Young, for the way all three have remained relevant into their ’60s and ’70s by simply following their muses rather than chasing fashion and fame. Electric is yet another step on that road for Thompson, and one of the most solid of his long career.
Here’s Thompson discussing the recording of Electric:
This article originally appeared at Sleeping Hedgehog.