He's part of that "Born in 1949" club that includes so many of my all-time favorites--Lowe, Raitt, Springsteen--but I'm showing no false reverence in saying that Richard Thompson's recent Electric (New West) is easily the best thing he's done in ten years.
Thankfully, the album is not all "electric" (some of his finest acoustic playing and vocals reside here), yet the emotions are indeed electric, regardless of their setting. Producer Buddy Miller apparently didn't want to skip over any of Thompson's skills, so Electric features virtually every aspect of his immense talent: Resonant, very "British" singing, lovely unplugged songs, and his amped up, often sizzling playing. Sometimes Thompson's guitar work rides a spacious wave of sound, with that beautiful jangle that he began to perfect when he and former wife Linda were making some of the most unfairly neglected records of the 1970s (I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight) and 1980s (Shoot Out the Lights). Elsewhere, Miller employs a grungier attack, where Thompson's guitar almost fights the surrounding instruments to great effect (he's not all over the fretboard; instead, he bends strings and evokes a kind of tension that sneaks up on you).
Ultimately, the songs are what makes Electric so successful. "Stuck on a Treadmill" has
a tidy, renaissance period-meets-rock structure that's quite appealing in spite of its
well-worn subject matter ("the robot looks at me as if to say, 'I'll be doing doing your job someday' "). "Good Things Happen to Bad People" pulls no punches when it comes to assessing a dubious character: "You cried the day I walked you down the aisle/and I know you've been bad...from the way you smile." The song's huge sweep and soaring harmonies--geez, I'd be bragging even if all I came up with was that sparkling riff--might have had a chance on rock radio back in the day when the airwaves provided more opportunities.
When he co-founded Fairport Convention so long ago, Thompson's instrumental prowess and choice of outside material (the group's 1968 debut included songs by
Joni Mitchell and Emmit Rhodes, after all) perfectly balanced each other. By the time of Fairport's second album (What We Did On Our Holidays), his songwriting was already approaching what the Band's Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko were creating.
It's been decades since Thompson's writing moved beyond graceful, and that goes for Electric's quietest, most haunting tunes, "My Enemy" and "Saving the Good Stuff for You." The former concerns a love he may have gotten over, though a stained pysche remains. The latter reveals how earlier, horrific times may unwittingly benefit a person years later, when they've finally discovered the right partner, a message that connects with one of his biggest fans.
Although I've yet to hear the deluxe edition (two CDs), Electric grabbed my favor right away and will undoubtably be there when I'm figuring out my year-end favorite records. Richard Thompson turns 64 next week; truly, the man has not lost a step.
Great stuff from my bin:
Booker T. Jones--The Road from Memphis (Anti): Booker T.'s Potato Hole (2009) mixed his Hammond B3 1960s soul sound with loud guitars from Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young to good effect. The followup, The Road From Memphis, pulls off the neat trick of re-establishing Jones' classic Memphis grooves and then expanding upon them with guest vocalists like Matt Berninger of the National and Lou Reed, to name two. Jones' funky singing on "Down In Memphis" is one of the peaks, as is an instrumental cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Another worthy effort from Booker T.
Dennis Coffey (Strut): This is one of the best albums of the year. One: Because it sizzles.
And Two: Who knew that Motown sessions guitarist and solo hitmaker ("Scorpio") Coffey was still doin' it? Coffey is also on Booker T. Jones' new The Road from Memphis, and his Dennis Coffey is a bit like Jones' effort: Powerful instrumentalist meets featured singers. But Coffey's approach is different; he's remaking old hit songs he originally played on (Wilson Pickett's "Don't Knock My Love," Funkadelic's "I
[or I'll] Bet You," 100 Proof Aged In Soul's "Somebody's Been Sleeping"--although
none of these were on the Motown label), adding accomplished contemporary vocalists (Fanny Franklin, Mick Collins & Rachel Nagy, Lisa Kekaula). Kekaula, who fronts the hard rock/soul band the BellRays, is especially convincing. Remakes or not, nothing on Dennis Coffey sounds like a retread.
The Cynics--Spinning Wheel Motel (Get Hip): Pittsburgh garage band the Cynics utilize the punch of producer Jim Diamond (who recorded both the White Stripes' debut and this album at Ghetto Recorders in Detroit) and sometimes a heavy folk-rock sound to give this one more depth than the average garage rock effort.While Spinning Wheel Motel is full of life and guts, it's hardly without fault; even if the misogyny of "All Good Women" ("all good men/beat their women") is supposed to be a joke, it's offensive and certainly not harmless.
Fairport Convention--Ebbets Field 1974 (It's All About Music): The reissue label IAAM recently did a Dino Valenti set and brings back this welcome Fairport show from Denver in May 1974. Sandy Denny (the billing on this reissue says "Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny," but that's a marketing technique, not accuracy) had rejoined the band after quitting in 1969 (their extraordinary guitarist Richard Thompson split in 1970); just about everything here appeared on Before the Moon (Pilot Records), a double set that covered two different performances. Ebbets Field is a crisp sounding single disc--quite an upgrade from the Pilot edition--and it's really all you need. Denny's tough "John the Gun" and a playful "Down In the Flood" (with Sandy in a jovial mood and doing a funny Dylan impression) are two highlights. Can't say I like this version of "Solo," as Dave Swarbrick's violin is high in the mix and his note-bending on the chorus makes the song sound out of key. But Swarb and band are tight and spot-on elsewhere, and my goodness, does bassist Dave Pegg play with precision and authority.