Richard Thompson's latest album is another solid work from the master craftsman. His body of music, the tree of Thompson, grows ever more impressive with time. RT is deeply rooted in English and Celtic music, that is one of the secrets of his creative longevity. Going back to Fairport Convention, his music has never been trendy or completely of its time. It is a never-ending stream of variations on old themes, including love, compassion, jealousy, lust, stupidity, vanity, greed, exploitation, and violence, and draws on the rich vein of song forms as well.
ELECTRIC, produced by Buddy Miller, is an excellent *album.* That is one of the levels of Thompson's craft -- he is a master singer, songwriter, and guitarist, and he also knows how to construct an album, a craft that may be dying with the rise of MP3s but one that will continue to be valued by those of us who grew up in the glory days of Albums. Every song does not have to be equally powerful on a well-constructed album, but every song has to contribute something to the overall mood and flow. That is certainly the case with ELECTRIC. While there is not a song here that I am inclined to play over and over like "I'll Never Give It Up" from Sweet Warrior (2007) or "Haul Me Up," "Demons In Her Dancing Shoes," "Big Sun Falling In the River" and "Sidney Wells" from Dream Attic (2010), there is not a single song I am inclined to skip.
ELECTRIC opens with the rough-and-ready Celtic stomp of "Stony Ground," a cautionary tale about Old Man Morris whose lust lands him in the gutter "dripping with blood." The scenario is actually somewhat similar to the story in the video of Bob Dylan's song "Duquesne Whistle" from Tempest (2012). "Salford Sunday" is a very tuneful song of regret, though the scenario is not clear ("Sunday papers talking of indiscretion"). "Sally B" is a love song from a "working man" addressed to a politician who's "got the style touches the people" and who "talks so down-homey, like you know me." Substitute "Sarah P" and this song becomes a hilarious topical character sketch. "Stuck On the Treadmill" is a catchy, toe-tapping Celtic rock number about the life of the assembly line worker. "Me and the robot working away, he looks at me as if to say 'I'll be doing your job someday.'"
"My Enemy" is one of the strongest songs on the album. Siobhan Maher Kennedy's vocals on this song (she sings harmony vocals on five songs) sound amazingly like Kate Bush. The chorus is "How I need My Enemy," a powerful message about hate and compassion. "Good Things Happen to Bad People" is perhaps the album's strongest contender for hit single if we still lived in a world where that was applicable. It sounds to me like a Dwight Yoakam song produced by Pete Anderson, with a Bakersfield sound via Sixties retro rock. In fact it sounds like it could be a Roy Orbison song. It features a classic unreliable Thompson protagonist. He is full of jealousy because his wife is smiling and happy and he suspects the worst. But if she's not ordinarily happy and smiling what does that tell us? "Where's Home?" features acoustic guitar strumming and fiddle, a slightly country feel, and a pleasant melody.
"Another Small Thing In Her Favour" is one of the album's most powerful songs. The lyric is brilliantly sad and Thompson's vocal is incredible. "Straight And Narrow" is a Sixties retro rock up-tempo number with Farfisa organ that makes me think of a Baptist Nancy Sinatra and her boots. "The Snow Goose," with Allison Krause on harmony, features acoustic guitar and a glimpse into the anguished mind of a man who can't resolve to approach the woman who is the object of his desire. "Saving the Good Stuff For You," the most country sounding song here, at first glance seems to be a song of redemption for one of Thompson's rogues, but careful attention to the lyrics casts doubt on that optimistic reading by the end of the song...
The bonus disc is definitely worth hearing, mainly for the songs previously available on obscure Thompson records. Of the four from these Buddy Miller ELECTRIC sessions I am most impressed by "The Rival." The lyric trails off though, and while "Will You Dance, Charlie Boy?" and "The Tic-Tac Man" are musically engaging, it seems to me that all four are lyrically weaker than the songs included in the (proper? main?) album. The stand-out tracks, though, are "Auldie Riggs/Auldie Riggs Dance" and "So Ben Mi Ch'a Bon Tempo." The first, the tale of a drunken sailor and serial killer, was recorded with the Idylwild Arts Academy Orchestra from California and was previously available on the album CABARET OF SOULS available only through Thompson's own record label and website. The strings sound great, though it makes you wonder about the presumably young musicians and their parents given the lyric... The last is from the album 1000 YEARS OF POPULAR MUSIC, and makes you want to get up and dance around the room.
Thompson retains drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk from the DREAM ATTIC band, but Stuart Duncan replaces Joel Zifkin on fiddle. Dennis Crouch also plays bass, and Buddy Miller plays guitar. Thompson is credited with guitar, vocals, accordion, keyboard, mandolin, and hurdy-gurdy, and of course he sounds fantastic on electric and acoustic guitar throughout.
One thing I can't understand about the album is the title. ELECTRIC is not more electric than the last two Thompson albums, SWEET WARRIOR and DREAM ATTIC. The title actually seems more appropriate for DREAM ATTIC, which was recorded live on tour with the electric band. It seems like a failure of creativity. But nevermind, it's a solid new album from Richard Thompson, so check it out!
(verified purchase from Decatur CD)