Iconic British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson is a musician’s musician. While Thompson has never scaled the heights of pop popularity, he has always been a hit with tastemakers: astute music writers, fellow audio artists, and discerning fans. Over a career that has lasted for more than 40 years, from a teenager who co-founded English folk-rockers Fairport Convention, to duo work with one-time partner Linda Thompson and now his solo efforts, Thompson has weathered trends, fickle labels, and changing times in order to create his music his way.
Thompson’s latest foray is Dream Attic, a 13 track, 73-minute set recorded using a unique approach: instead of taking his backing band into a studio, Thompson enlisted his four-person support group to introduce his fresh batch of material in front of audiences earlier this year during a West Coast mini-tour and taped the shows. The result is a collection of ramped-up rockers, Celtic-sloped cuts, and Thompson’s perceptively etched balladry.
Although the preference to capture his music on concert stages was partially economical (it saved Thompson cash), it was also deliberately aesthetic. “The thing about recording live is that you lose accuracy but you gain energy; you lose choices but you gain immediacy,” Thompson states. Indeed, Dream Attic is a no-nonsense experience: Thompson and his group – Pete Zorn on guitar, flute, sax, and mandolin; drummer Michael Jerome; bassist Taras Prodaniuk; and Joel Zifkin on electric violin and mandolin – pour out their passion in huge quaffs that suck listeners into the event.
The in-the-moment attitude is felt right away on explosive, candid opener “The Money Shuffle,” a no-holds-barred verbal barrage against Madison Avenue fat cats akin to Bernie Madoff. As the band builds up a grooving, head-nodding riff accented by Zorn’s Middle Eastern-tinged sax and Zifkin’s violin, Thompson relates in no uncertain terms what the narrative’s fiscal public figure wants: “If you’ll just – bend over a little / I think you’ll feel my financial muscle / Spread it wide, wide as you can / To get the full benefit of my plan.”
One of the particulars that make Thompson’s gigs memorable is his penchant to showcase his guitar skills, which are often downplayed on studio outings: there is ample reason he is considered one of the top six stringers. Here, practically every other cut has at least one scorching solo, each one a miniature work of art: thorny chords during the noir-ish “Crimescene,” for example, the burnished single-note cavalcade that concludes optimistic pop nugget “Big Sun Falling in the River,” and chiefly the lashing improvisation that propels serial killer chronicle “Sidney Wells.” The band members also maintain well-developed musicianship that belies the brief rehearsal time before the tour began: Zifkin’s electric violin eerily complements Zorn’s sax during forlorn “Burning Man” and the whole quintet keeps the folk elements rollicking during Irish-inclined numbers such as “Demons in Her Dancing Shoes.”
Though not every song is lyrically rich in specifics and wordplay (“Among the Gorse, Among the Grey” is too terse and “Burning Man” seems nebulous) there are others that illustrate Thompson’s keen capability to pen lingering character sketches and situational settings. The cinematic “Crimescene” deals with obliterated destiny: “A ticket booked, a suitcase packed / A diary on the desk / Free will’s just a walk on part / In this ugly humoresque.” On “Demons in Her Dancing Shoes” Thompson describes a woman who escapes her surroundings by refurbishing the rubbish that encases her life: “My girl, she’s a piece of work / Loves those cast-offs and those hand-me-downs / Dresses like a bride-to-be / From some other century / Stylish rags and ripped-up wedding gowns.” But far and above the most deeply disturbing – and most unforgettable – portrayal is the first-person murderer in “Sidney Wells.” Thompson depicts a homicidal charmer who might have stepped from the pages of another Thompson story – a Jim Thompson novel – who takes his teenage victim into the woods, strips her naked, chokes her with her stockings, tries to burn her body on a pile of tires, confesses seven similar crimes to the judge, and runs into jailhouse justice via a convict’s knife. Perversely, “Sidney Wells” is also a hard-charging, authoritative crowd-pleaser.
For hardcore Thompson fans, there is more than just this performance compact disc available for purchase: there is also an online-only deluxe version that includes a bonus disc of acoustic demos of the all of the songs, and for collectors, high-quality MP3s and a lithograph signed by Thompson.Visit: Richard Thompson | Shout! Factory
Purchase: Insound | eMusic