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CD Review: Richard Thompson – Front Parlour Ballads

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I purchased Shoot Out The Lights by Richard and Linda Thompson like the good little music fan I was during my early twenties. And I promptly couldn’t get it. Why was their little psycho-drama of an album so universally praised? I thought I was just too young to get it, but then I got older and there was no change. I bought other Thompson albums and found them mildly diverting. I haven’t given up my quest to understand this acclaimed artist which brings us to his latest release Front Parlour Ballads.

Is it mildly diverting? Yes, plus a little more. The title should hip you that this album is full of tunes that Thompson might play for you if granted an exclusive audience with him. The setup is Thompson and his guitar except for leadoff track “Let It Blow” which features Debra Dobkin on percussion. It’s a blustery song whose main character is a serial marrying Lothario. Did I say character? Yes, this album is full of story songs evoking the grand folk songs of years past, but all provided nice modern twists. It’s all original material that sounds like it sauntered in from another era.

“Miss Patsy” is the lament of a guy in with a bad crowd who ends up “sharing a cell with a holy kung fu” whatever that means. There’s more new acoustic folklore with “Old Thames Side” about a man who can’t pick up the ladies the way he wants to: “and I looked for a phrase to capture your ways, but that’s a task will always defeat me.” The sailor’s lament “Row, Boys, Row” is a riot with
the line “should have read the small print” included as a warning to all aspiring swabbies out there. “The Boys Of Mutton Street” is a nice return to childhood with some spritely guitar edging its evocation along. The protagonist of “A Solitary Life” is booming and boisterous, but it turns out bad in the end. Speaking of the end, the last song creeps me me out a little. It seems to be about Hitler getting bullied at school. His name is never said, but the kid is enamored of Nietzche and Nimrod and revenge is on his little evil mind.

Front Parlour Ballads is no Shoot Out The Lights. But in my case this is a good thing. I found the album quite refreshing if not a complete winner. It could have lost about 4 songs and made a better whole. One I know; the album is good enough that I’ll likely pick up Thompson’s next release looking for that eureka moment that others have had with his work.

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  • Russ

    I don’t understand. Why are you reviewing Thompson if you only find him/his albums @mildly diverting@ ? This is the man so many others are measured by. Songwriter of the 20th century quite probably. Mildly diverting ? Go back to listening to Blink 182 okay ?

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Oh no Russ, on the contrary. I give Wally great credit for actively trying to reach out for something that he does not readily get.

    I haven’t gotten this record yet, but I am perplexed over what’s not to get with Richard Thompson. Shoot Out the Lights kicks ass. Try putting aside the relationship stuff with the Thompsons, and just listen to them as individual songs. Mixed up in an iPod would be great. Personally, I can’t get enough of that treacherous “Back Street Slide.”

    If you’re trying to reach out for Richard, I’d highly recommend Rumor and Sigh. For starters, probably now his best known song now is “Vincent Black Lightning 1952″ which starts out life on this album as a driving English folk song before becoming an American bluegrass standard. This album also has my personal favorite RT song, Psycho Street.

  • J. P. Spencer

    “Shoot Out The Lights” is great, and I have to agree with your assessment of “Rumour And Sigh”, but one of my top three albums of all time is “I Want To Se The Bright Lights Tonight” By Richard and Linda. While it to9ok “Shoot Out The Lights” to discover Richard Thompson, his is a body of work that is rapidly approaching 40 years of creativity.
    I saw Richard for the 7th time in concert last Saturday in Milwaukee. I suggest that if the author of the review is looking for that “eureka” moment we’ve all had, he ought to buy a concert ticket rather than an album. The album purchases will soon follow.

  • Derrick

    Don’t give up that quest to understand this artist. Try metaphor. Isn’t Miss Patsy a tongue in cheek address to the muse outlining Thompson’s musical career? Row Boys Row can be seen as a critique of the music industry as it tried to negotiate the doldrums of the last decade. Isn’t “I searched for a phrase” the eternal position of the poet or artist’s feeling of inadequacy faced with the task of describing perfect beauty?

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    JP, I’m right with you on a doubleplusgood rating for the Richard Thompson concert experience.

  • http://www.wallybangs.blogspot.com wallybangs

    I’ll go and check out Thompson the next time he’s around my way.

  • godoggo

    I thought Shoot Out the Lights sounded to much like a demo: neither raw nor polished enough to be effective. Some of the songs are pretty good; I really like the live version of the title track; don’t know what record it’s on; presumably somebody here does.

    I love Rumour and Sigh for the most part; a few songs are weak, like “You Dream Too Much,” but most are excellent to great. I’m not crazy about the few other Thomson records I have or have heard. Generally I think he’s best when his songs have a fairly strong foundation in British folk of one sort or the other; he leaves me a bit cold when he dabbles in soul, Britpop, jazz or comedy.

    I gotta hear more Fairport Convention sometime. I love Liege and Lief.

    Lots of semicolons in this comment, I notice; I like semicolons.

  • A Richard Thompson fan

    Who uses the expression ‘whatever that means’ in a review? That shows ignorance, at best.

  • http://www.wallybangs.blogspot.com wallybangs

    Well, what does “sharing a cell with a holy kung fu” mean then? I could assume it meant the protagonist shared a cell with an Asian, but then I would hate to assume in a review.

  • Jenn

    If you still don’t “get” Richard Thompson please try “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” and “Pours Down With Silver” – both with LInda and two of the most beautiful (and timeless) recordings ever.

  • Derrick

    I can’t tell you what sharing a cell with a holy kung fu means for you, but I would take it to imply in an autobiographical context that RT as a muslim feels unhappy about being lumped together with those who espouse violence. Sometimes as a reviewer you have to go with the courage of your convictions about a song, and sticking with literal descriptions can come over as rather odd.

  • Dawei

    A holy kung fu is one of those guys who studies an Asian martial art (or says he does), is into the spirituality of it (or says he is), and is subtly or not so subtly boastful and in-your-face about the whole thing.