Hey, There’s a Bird in This Mirror!

Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon, Part 21 (Thompson, Linda – Thompson, Teddy)

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All Thompson edition!

For the uninitiated, Richard Thompson is probably the greatest songwriter and guitarist to never have even a moment of mainstream success in this country. Even occasional collaborator and similarly idiosyncratic English folkie Nick Drake had his posthumous moment in the sun a few years ago when “Pink Moon” was used to hawk Volkswagons. Beginning his career as the gifted, young lead guitarist and occasional singer and songwriter in Fairport Convention, Thompson split from the group in the early 70s and began a decade-long partnership with his wife, Linda. On their greatest work together, Linda’s smooth and lovely voice serves as the sugar to make Richard’s bitter lyrical medicine go down. To draw a convoluted, somewhat inaccurate* analogy to another famous English pair, they were like the Brownings, with Linda delivering the couple’s finest love songs, and Richard, himself, singing the dark songs, often dramatic monologues from the perspective of unreliable narrators who might give Porphyria’s lover a run for his money. This distinction becomes clearer and clearer as the pair’s time together in and out of the studio reached its end on 1982’s classic, Shoot Out the Lights, on which Richard gives voice to what sound like Linda’s marital frustrations on several of the songs she sings, and he reserves the negligent family man of “Man in Need” and the violent burglary tale, “Shoot Out the Lights” for himself.

Throughout this time, the Thompsons experimented with everything from old-fashioned English balladry to 70s radio pop, they briefly joined a Sufi Islam commune, and had three children. After the breakup, Linda withdrew from pop music for a while, owing partially to what was eventually diagnosed as spasmodic dysphonia (a neurological disorder that disrupts speech… and singing, naturally). Only within the last few years, beginning with 2002’s Fashionably Late, has she resumed a regular schedule of releasing albums of new material.

Richard kept up an impressive pace and continually added new twists to his sound – rockabilly, zydeco, jazz, moody soundtrack work. Despite the occasionally dark turns his lyrics take, he’s an incredibly warm and funny live performer who whips out jaw-dropping solos that not only don’t distract, but continually enhance his material. He’s split his time over the past few years between writing, recording, and performing new material and his 1,000 Years of Popular Music shows, which feature Thompson chronologically covering songs from roughly 1068 to the present (“Oops, I Did It Again” is a highlight).

And to further complicate things, their son, Teddy, has a burgeoning singer-songwriter career and has toured with both his mom and dad, as well as Rufus Wainright (if I were truly ambitious, I’d detail the Wainwright/Thompson connections, but some of that will probably come clear during the following reviews and in my review of Wainwright’s Release the Stars).

* Chiefly inaccurate, of course, because Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote her own poetry, while Linda merely gave voice to half of Richard’s songs.  Also, the Brownings were separated only when Elizabeth tragically succumbed to her long illness, while the Thompsons were separated when Richard started sleeping with some woman in California.  My analogies suck.

Linda Thompson – Versatile Heart

It’s to my surprise that Linda’s album is the strongest album of the three reviewed here. Conventional wisdom dictates that Richard, the assumed genius of the splintered clan, could spit out some halfway decent songs, modestly rip through a few finger-defying solos, and still put out something better than his ex-wife, who generally doesn’t have the songwriting knack he does, and who seems more content to dwell in a single, simple style than to flit from influence to influence. One might even expect next-big-thing-in-waiting Teddy to eclipse his mom’s modest effort. But modesty suits Linda. Versatile Heart is a warm blanket, with gentle Brit-folk moments that call to mind the prettier work of her partnership with Richard (“Blue & Gold”) and pop- and Americana-tinged tunes that call to mind the sadly semi-forgotten Linda Ronstadt/Emmylou Harris Western Wall collaboration (the title track, “Give Me a Sad Song”). Teddy also gives us a hint of the old-school country sound he’d later cover on his album with a duet with his mom, “Do Your Best for Rock’n’Roll.”

While the tone yields few surprises, there are a few unexpected cover choices that give the album a welcome stretch. Rufus Wainwright’s previously unrecorded “Beauty” is probably better than most of the songs that made the cut for his new album and, while Antony Hegarty’s distinct vocal presence and Wainwright’s impossible-to-miss style pin this as a Wainwright song, Thompson has to be given credit for owning her rendition more than enough to justify its presence here. She does even better with Tom Waits’/Kathleen Brennan’s “The Day After Tomorrow,” one of the best songs written in the wake of the Iraq War. It’s a simple song, as performed by Waits or Thompson, and its success depends totally on the sincerity of the singer. Thompson’s version is every bit as good as Waits’, which is really saying something. Versatile Heart may not be one of the best albums of the year, but I’m taken with just how much better it is than I’d ever have expected it to be.

Richard Thompson – Sweet Warrior

And expectations work in reverse on Sweet Warrior. Thompson’s last couple studio albums, The Old Kit Bag and Front Parlour Ballads, were scaled-back affairs, one featuring a smaller crew of musicians than usual and the other an almost all-acoustic release. Prior to that, Thompson had released Mock Tudor, one of his finest achievements since his collaborations with Linda, which came off a string of also relatively strong releases, the half-electric/half-acoustic You? Me? Us? and the polished Mirror Blue and Rumour and Sigh (the closest he’s ever come to having a hit). Sweet Warrior is a return to the fullness of those albums, but the songs just aren’t all there.

The beginning of the album flounders on a songwriting basis, as Thompson careens from style to style, indulging in some of his least appealing tendencies, like the silly humor that informs “Mr. Stupid,” all the while perversely giving us Thompson fans the tremendous electric guitar workouts we’ve been craving since Mock Tudor. Things begin to pick up with “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me,” a wry letter home from a soldier in Iraq (not as convincing as the Waits song that Linda covers, but pretty good, anyway) and get even better in “Poppy Red,” the kind of mid-tempo ode to a dead love that Thompson can probably crank out in his sleep, but that still kills the strained humor of his more frivolous work. “Bad Monkey” is something else we’ve heard repeatedly from Thompson. It’s a speedy rockabilly-zydeco, a genre he pretty much perfected on “Tear-Stained Letter, but it’s always fun to hear him solo over this sort of thing. Things get shaky for a few subsequent songs, but Thompson eventually pulls it together for four solid tracks at the end.

All in all, one of Thompson’s weaker efforts, but it has its charms, mostly found toward the end of the album.

Teddy Thompson – Up Front and Down Low

Up Front and Down Low, a collection of traditional country music covers, may be one of the boldest, weirdest choices a young songwriter in Thompson’s shoes could make. With only two original albums to his name and a family tree already weighed down by accomplishments of the past (not just the fact of his parentage, but the fact that his parents spent large portions of their careers embracing old, old musical traditions), he risks being judged against yet more standards (and, again, not just the fact of the original performers, but the complicated shadow cast by Elvis Costello’s similar country-traditionalism-minus-twang stunt on his Almost Blue album). Thompson has a nice voice that sounds decreasingly like Linda’s as he gets older, and he performs these songs with verve. Having heard very few of these in their original incarnations, I can’t speak to how much he’s adapted them, but he seems to deliver them honestly and with few unseemly southern affectations. It’s a little same-y, though, and I can’t imagine going back to it as often as I do the aforementioned Costello collection, which offered some up-tempo selections to offset the gentle two-steps and country waltzes.

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Written by Dave

January 21, 2008 at 3:35 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I love the warning label on ALMOST BLUE: “This album contains country and western music and may cause offence to narrow minded listeners.”

    I don’t really know Teddy Thompson’s music, but I’ll have to give this a go.

    Andrew Eaton

    January 22, 2008 at 11:24 pm

  2. Great reviews on all the albums.

    I caught Richard Thompson at the Folk Festival in Calgary a few years ago. He was absolutely brilliant. Just him and a guitar. He was followed by David Byrne which made for a strange but oddly enjoyable evening in the park.

    Ryan S~

    January 25, 2008 at 3:33 pm

  3. Thanks!

    If you ever get a chance, check him out when he’s doing an electric set for the contrast. It’s kind of the same vibe, but with some of the most amazing extended solos you’ll ever hear (and I usually hate extended solos), not just from Thompson, but from pretty much anyone he’d bother to bring on the road with him. It’s almost like watching jazz musicians play rock and folk songs.

    Dave

    January 25, 2008 at 7:24 pm

  4. Richard Thompson is so, so great. I could listen to “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” 24 hours a day until the end of time and not get bored.

    Brendan M. Leonard

    January 31, 2008 at 12:04 am


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