Many musicians can point to the Grammys and other music awards that demonstrate critical appreciation for their work. But few can boast a lifetime achievement award from BBC Radio or have been appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen of England’s New Year Honours list. Richard Thompson has earned these awards and more. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Robert Plant, REM, Elvis Costello, and Bonnie Raitt. Since 1967, when he was the main motor of Fairport Convention, Thompson has continually been praised as a guitar virtuoso. With such accolades, you’d think he would be a household name.
But even after all these years, Thompson is more heard about than listened to, at least in the commercial mainstream. He’s recorded for a series of major labels, but all ended up letting his contract lapse. Now, since 2000, Thompson has been finding and expanding on his audience by going the indie route, and his unique breed of music is ideal for this kind of marketing. So his new Electric should appeal to old fans who’ve been championing him for decades and may earn him some new devotees as well.
While Thompson describes Electric as “Celtic funk,” the “funk” part of the equation is hard to find. Folk, country, rock, and punk are here, and there’s no missing the Celtic strains, especially in Thompson’s vocals. For example, the opener “Stoney Ground” is where Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span meet, introducing us to the versatile rhythm section of drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk. The song also lets us know Thompson is still writing character sketches and narratives, in this case about male lovers sticking their noses where they don’t belong while seeking roses who have thorns.
Many of the tracks, of course, are Gentle country folk tales like “Salford Sunday” which evokes the vocals and style of Gordon Lightfoot. Likewise, “My Enemy” is a ballad about a man contemplating why he needs an adversary and how this impacts his life. In the same vein, the acoustic, beautiful “The Snow Goose,” where Thompson is joined by Alison Krauss, has the singer observing “The Northern winds will cut you/The Northern girls will gut you.” I suspect this is one song destined to be covered by more than one singer seeking a solid melody carrying riveting imagery.
From time to time, Electric lives up to its title. For example, “Sally B” takes a lyrical blues verse form but thrashes out the melody with raw, punk energy. Likewise, “Stuck on the Treadmill” is primitive power trio rock. A strong guitar hook drives “Good Things Happen to Bad People” in a performance that’s pure radio-friendly pop. The song’s third section, in fact, is a return to the classic jams of the late ’60s.
Shifting gears again, “Where’s Home?” seems crafted for contemporary country audiences who like good-time mandolin strums, Appalachian violins (played by Stuart Duncan), and front porch harmony singing. In this case, that’s with English singer-songwriter Siobhan Maher-Kennedy who joins Thompson on several songs. Speaking of country, it’s hard to beat the exquisite storytelling of “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” in which the singer observes all the small things that add up to what attracts him to his lady. Another woman also has a list of virtues in “Straight And Narrow,” but the musical setting is a more hard-driving ’60s AM single approach, complete with runs on a Hammond organ that’s neither Celtic nor funk.
Finally, “Saving The Good Stuff For You” is a typical album closer with Thompson looking over his past life and determining that he is gray of head, but has saved what matters—ostensibly his lady, perhaps his children, or more inclusively we, the audience—for you.
Produced in Buddy Miller’s home studio in Nashville, Electric is a no-frills, quickly knocked out affair with no pretensions or unneeded gloss. As with every Thompson album, guitar players will enjoy the primer he offers, especially his solos and hot licks. For everyone else, odds are there will be nuggets to appreciate if not the collection as a whole. Most of the songs, for the lyrics alone, are worthy of more than one listen. Try “Stony Ground” and see if you want to hear the rest of the ride.