16/1/14 – Richard Thompson – Electric – 2013

Richard Thompson - Electric - Album Cover

It’s hard to know where to start with Richard Thompson if you don’t know him – it’s hard if you do because then you know – how deep is the furrow he ploughs – (not a folk reference) just that he has made around 40 albums. For a musician who is known for his traditional roots he is always trying to reinvent himself – on Electric he is at it again, this time working fundamentally with a trio, as he says in a promo video for this record, a kind of wimpy Cream (he has a great sense of humour about it all) a folky power trio – except Thompson’s guitar playing is as edgy and exciting as anything you may have heard in recent years. A unique fingerpicking style that allows him to bend strings and pick them at the same time, makes him one of the great innovative guitarists, impossible to imitate and with original licks that will leave most for dead.

The first track on Electric, Stony Ground shows off his guitar ability and his folky lyric writing skills, that is  storytelling. Racy characters, that spring into life, oddballs, villains and ne’re-do-wells.

For a man that lives in L.A. he does a miraculous job of maintaining his Englishness. Salford Sunday (that’s just outside Manchester) deals with the regrets of a man whose unruly behaviour has destroyed his relationship. The song could be set anywhere but it’s England that is his muse – America is where he lives. Siobhan Maher Kennedy ex singer from Liverpool’s River City People (that made two albums in ’89 and ’91) helps him out on backing vocals on this and a few songs on the record. The power trio is nowhere to be seen on this particular song with its tuneful folky sadness.

Sally B does actually find us in the USA and you feel that the band is just revving itself up. Produced by Buddy Miller in his house in Nashville (a great guitarist in his own right) he’s an old hand having worked with Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams  Steve Earle and Linda Ronstadt amongst others. But there’s nothing Country about this track even though the subject matter might be local, as Thompson lunges into a rivetting solo to end the song.

Now they talk way down south
Without moving their mouth
And the houses are old antebellum
There you’ll find supporters
Revolutionary daughters
Who’ll believe everything that you tell ’em

Stuck On the Treadmill is about a factory worker’s plight (or anyone that might be stuck in a mundane job) but with a classic Richard Thompson lyric:

Me and the robot, working away
He looks at me as if to say
I’ll be doing your job someday
Stuck on the treadmill

A short guitar solo, sometimes he reminds me of a folky Tom Verlaine (or the other way ’round) he solos brilliantly to the end of the song.

My Enemy is a sweet ode to the strength one gets from the pain caused by others. This character grows from tragedy, uses it to his advantage. Who is Richard Thompson in these songs? Which ones are fictional characters and which ones are real?

When you thought I was winning the game
You came and snuffed out the flame
You thought you finished me off
But you just made me strong
Each time you dealt me a blow
Each time you brought me so low
I found something inside to help me along

My enemy, enemy, how I need my enemy
Oh my enemy, enemy, how I need my enemy

Did I slight you in some little way
Or does hate help you get through the day?
One way or another, I’m happy your aim was so true
If the demons in you hadn’t jarred
I would never have struggled so hard
The only thing now eating me is, what’s eating you?

My enemy, enemy, how I need my enemy
Oh my enemy, enemy, how I need my enemy

Now we’re just two old men on the brink
Each waiting for the other to blink
If I should lose you, I’d be left with nothing but fate
As I see your life fall apart
I should smile but I don’t have the heart
At the end of the day, it’s still too much effort to hate

My enemy, enemy, how I need my enemy
Oh my enemy, enemy, how I need my enemy 

It may not be coincidental that the next song, Good Things Happen To Bad People comes next – a song of betrayal with a classic arpeggio that leads into a ripping solo guitar at 3.41.

Where’s Home does have the Nashville violin and the Nashville swing but it can’t ruffle Thompson’s schtick. A standard song for an itinerant musician. In the next song that deals with home and the breakdown of a relationship Thompson’s lyrical skills are again realised, turning dark situations into positive outcomes – heartfelt, nerve hitting, almost farcical:

Got her ducks all in a row
Got her bags all packed to go
She’ll find some other poor pilgrim who’s braver
At least she looked me in the eye
With her less than fond goodbye
That’s one small thing in her favour

Got the kids in the car
Dreams will get you just so far
Then life gives you bitter pills to savour
Still she kissed me once more
As she gently slammed the door
That’s another small thing in her favour

She said she felt bad
For the home that we had
And the effort I’d wasted to save her
She told me as much
As she slowly let out the clutch
That’s another small thing in her favour

It’s a slippery slope
To give her more rope
And I didn’t exactly enslave her
And she says I’m still a part
Of her wandering heart
That’s another small thing in her favour

Now there’s trouble and strife
But we once had a life
For a while our vows didn’t waver
I relied on her smile
And her love, for a while
That’s another small thing in her favour

That’s another small thing in her favour

A melody and chord sequence that only he could make work – challenging harmonies. In a interview I saw, he said he listens to classical music – music outside his genre and is interested in the harmonies that he hears (Stravinsky, Shostakovich). Here you hear him using that knowledge.

Straight And Narrow has that ’50s or ’60s dancehall swing that inhabits a side of his music. I wonder if this is a place from where he draws inspiration as in a distant memory, a blurred recollection, like in Ray Davies’ song Come Dancing.

The Snow Goose has Alison Krauss singing backing vocals and again you can’t shake his folk identity even with the Queen of bluegrass on his song. Some unbelievably dark lyrics, that we have grown to expect from him:

Northern winds will cut you
Northern girls will gut you
Leave you cold and empty
Like a fish on the slab

The album ends with the uplifting, Saving The Good Stuff For You and here America meets England in a true Country and Folk hybrid. Thompson has let the Nashville wind waft through the window.

I realise that the power trio of Taras Prodaniuk on bass , Michael Jerome on drums (I saw him play with John Cale) is just an aspect and when Thompson says that he wrote songs for this format, well he also wrote like he normally does as this album shows. Having seen him live many times, met him two or three times and even opened for him once at Slim’s in San Francisco, I am constantly enamoured by his words and melodies his dazzling guitar playing and how he can paint inspiring pictures on the dark soul.