27 December 2008

Rounding Out the Collection: Richard Thompson (1988-1994), and Whoopee in Hell Mix #4

The first time I heard Richard Thompson was in January of 2000, at my friend Andre's house in Massachusetts. At the time, I was taking a month off from my Freshman year of college--our school offered a January term during the eponymous month, but I had transferred in some AP credits, and I figured the time could be better spent traveling. This was the first time I'd really traveled in the normal way on my own--I had been on lengthy camping trips with no real adult supervision, but I had never boarded a plane on my own.

Andre was a guitar-player (later, he would go on to play in a series of bands, and gigs out semi-frequently now in the Boston area with his latest project), someone who's music taste was more expansive than my own, and much more focused on musicality, as opposed to gut reaction. He liked Blood, Sweat, & Tears, Van Morrison, and Traffic--I liked the Minutemen. We had become friends over shared conversations about people we agreed on--Springsteen and Neil Young the most prominent--but despite my devoted interest in becoming a music snob, Andre was much further along. H e had a copy of Richard Thompson's 1991 album, Rumor & Sigh--an album I've grown quite fond of in the intervening years--but when he played it for me that January, it seemed tiresome and same-sounding. Later I would discover that this was because of the terrible, dated production of Mitchell Froom, who had gotten his mitts into Thompson when he had signed with Capital in the late 1980s, and had slathered a thick layer of fuzz and keyboards over the top of Thompson's exceptional guitar playing and compelling singing--a layer so thick I appreciated neither quality at the time. The only song that stuck out was called "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," where Thompson sang a ballad about a couple named James and Molly (and James's bad end) over an acoustic guitar accompaniment that was anything but bare. In fact, it was the best flat top guitar picking I'd ever heard, but having no musical knowledge, and having mostly listened to blues and punk guitar players, I didn't really appreciate how exceptional it was. Nor did I really appreciate how well the song was crafted: a wry tale of a love so true but so ill-fated, a love sealed not with a kiss, but with the gift of leather and chrome (and a boy with somewhat ridiculous priorities):

Says James "In my opinion, there's nothing in this world
Beats a '52 Vincent and a red headed girl.
Now Nortons and Indians and Greeves won't do,
Ah, they don't have a soul like a Vincent '52
Oh he reached for her hand and he slipped her the keys
Said "I've got no further use for these.
I see angels on Ariels in leather and chrome,
Swooping down from heaven to carry me home"
And he gave her one last kiss and died
And he gave her his Vincent to ride.
("1952 Vincent Black Lightning", from Rumor & Sigh)

Now this is some cornball stuff, and it smelled suspiciously like folk music--something I had every intention of staying as far away as I could from. I didn't want it tainting my Husker Du records, or mixing in with my Pixies.

But by 2002, I had started drinking, and on certain nights, I could almost understand why Andre thought this was such an excellent song. Further drinking led me to purchase Richard Thompson's 1982 record Shoot Out the Lights, which had two things I hadn't really heard from him before--beautiful, magnificent electric guitar playing, and gorgeous vocal harmonies (between Richard and his wife/partner Linda). I learned that this was the last of a series of albums they had recorded together since 1974, along the way having become devout Sufi Muslims (Richard remains one today). Other than "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and the depressing but humorous "God Loves a Drunk," none of my friends really caught on to Thompson:

All of my friends don't comprehend me
Their kind of style it just offends me
I want to take 'em, I want to shake 'em
'Till they pay me some heed
(from "A Man in Need," off Shoot Out the Lights)

But that's not really the point. I wanted to talk about the two records of RT's that I've finally rounded up to complete my collection. The pair of records--Amnesia (1988) and Mirror Blue (1994)--are both albums I've avoided because they don't fit my idea of a good Richard Thompson record.

The first two are from the Froom period I mentioned earlier, when crappy production combined with a rather drastic change in his style of arrangement to produce music that sounded very little like his earlier work with Linda Thompson. This period--from Amnesia to You? Me? Us? (1996) produced his most dated-sounding records. The songwriting was still, for the most part, top-notch, but the arrangements involve a lot of electric-sounding drums and layered organs and keyboards, make him sound like a folkier 'Til Tuesday.

Richard Thompson - Reckless Kind (track 3 from Amnesia)

Rumor & Sigh came out in between the two records I'm discussing here, and was a major critical and commercial success (and nominated for an Alternative Rock Grammy), which gave Froom, from the sound of Mirror Blue, some ideas. Several of the tracks feature production that sounds like it was built off a tape loop stolen from Tom Waits circa Raindogs, but rather than sounding innovative or avant-guard, it simply doesn't suit Thompson's songwriting or singing, which at this time was evolving away from his earlier electric sound and towards an aggressive acoustic approach honed during his mostly solo acoustic touring.

Richard Thompson - For the Sake of Mary (track 1 off Mirror Blue)
Richard Thompson - Mingus Eyes (track 8 off Mirror Blue)

The most successful songs on both records are the slower numbers, where the "innovative" production has the least chance to get in the way (I imagine taking Froom's name and turning it into a verb--to "Froom" meaning to take something of inherent quality and obscure it through well-meaning but misguided obfuscation. For example, "The argument in my term paper was well thought out, but I froomed it, and because she couldn't tell what I was saying, the professor gave me a C+."). In particular, Beeswing (from Mirror Blue) and "Waltzing's for Dreaming" (Amnesia) rival Thompson's best ballad work.

Richard Thompson - Waltzing's for Dreaming (track 9 from Amnesia)
Richard Thompson - Beeswing (track 10 from Mirror Blue)

Now they say love's for gamblers, oh the pendulum swings
I bet hard on love and I lost everything
So don't send me home now, put a shot in my arm
And we'll drink out old memories and we'll drink in the dawn
And Mr Bandleader won't you play one more time
For I've good folding money in this pocket of mine
(from "Waltzing's for Dreamers")

But all of this is really an elaborate segue into the minimally anticipated but lovingly prepared Whoopee in Hell Mix #4, "A Town with No Future" (A Richard Thompson Compendium). There's a pair of "Greatest Hits" packages already (one for the Richard & Linda years and one for the Capitol [read: Froom] years), but nothing career-spanning and focused on his studio recordings (there are also two multidisc comps focused on live tracks and outtakes here and here). This mix covers roughly every studio and "official" live record (including his five records as a member of the British folk/psychedelia group Fairport Convention), but rather than compile it chronologically, I went the Bob Pollard route. It's arranged as a mix, sequenced for listening, rather than posterity. And bear in mind not ever song was sung by RT--he was only rarely the lead singer in Fairport Convention, and his wife sang more than half the songs on the early records. But except for his acoustic cover of the old chestnut "Shenandoah," these are all RT compositions, and that's his lead guitar you hear on the Fairport Convention tracks, back in the day when he has making his name as one of the premier Brit guitar players not named Clapton, Page, or Beck.

Whoopee in Hell Mix #4: "A Town With no Future" - A Richard Thompson Compendium
  1. Roll Over Vaughn Williams - Richard Thompson
  2. Shoot Out The Lights - Richard & Linda Thompson
  3. Beat The Retreat - Richard & Linda Thompson
  4. Shenandoah - Richard Thompson
  5. Cooksferry Queen - Richard Thompson
  6. I Ain't Going To Drag My Feet No More - Richard Thompson
  7. Crawl Back (Under My Stone) - Richard Thompson
  8. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight - Richard & Linda Thompson
  9. Matty Groves - Fairport Convention
  10. Man In Need - Richard & Linda Thompson
  11. I Feel So Good - Richard Thompson
  12. Tear-Stained Letter - Richard Thompson
  13. Valerie - Richard Thompson
  14. The Angels Took My Racehorse Away - Richard Thompson
  15. Time Will Show The Wiser - Fairport Convention
  16. Don't Renege On Our Love - Richard & Linda Thompson
  17. When I Get To The Border - Richard & Linda Thompson
  18. Time To Ring Some Changes - Richard Thompson
  19. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning - Richard Thompson
  20. The Cavalry Cross - Richard & Linda Thompson
  21. Meet On The Ledge - Fairport Convention
  22. I'll Regret It All In The Morning - Richard & Linda Thompson
  23. Wall Of Death - Richard & Linda Thompson
  24. Both Ends Burning - Richard Thompson
  25. Turning of the Tide - Richard Thompson
  26. I Can't Wake Up To Save My Life - Richard Thompson
  27. Sibella - Richard Thompson
  28. Don't Sit On My Jimmy Shands - Richard Thompson
  29. Dark End Of The Street [Live] - Richard & Linda Thompson
  30. I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight [Live] - Richard Thompson
  31. God Loves A Drunk - Richard Thompson
  32. Dad's Gonna Kill Me - Richard Thompson
Get Tracks 1-14; 15-32

Posted by Brandon

1 comment:

Ben said...

Hey: some great picks here. Nice to see a Yank appreciating the genius of RT!
This is a great synopsis of some of his work over the decades - although the omission of Devonside from Hand of Kindness is a disappointment.
Anyway - thanks for a great share!
All best