Sweet Warrior (Richard Thompson) – Album Review

Released In 2007, “Sweet Warrior” Was Arguably The Most Elaborate Album Richard Thompson Recorded In The Whole Decade

Released In 2007, “Sweet Warrior” Was Arguably The Most Elaborate Album Richard Thompson Recorded In The Whole Decade

After “The Old Kit Bag” and “Front Parlour Ballads” (two albums defined by their interpretative intimacy) Richard Thompson undertook the recording of one of the fullest-sounding albums of his career. Completed and released in 2007, “Sweet Warrior” was named after a composition by Spenser, the poet who sparked the sonnet craze of the 17th Century, and who unwittingly encouraged Shakespeare to come with his finest body of non-dramatic work ever.

“Sweet Warrior” brings to mind key albums of Thompson’s career such as “Rumour And Sigh” and “Mirror Blue”. But not in a sonorous sense – for worse and for better, both “Rumour And Sigh” and “Mirror Blue” had been the subject of Mitchell Froom’s flamboyant studio techniques. No, the connection here is one of scope. Starting with 1999’s “Mock Tudor”, Thompson’s previous albums had been conceptual or thematic works. “Sweet Warrior” stood as a deliberate detour that took Thompson back to non-conceptual territory, and freed him to write about a much larger set of characters within the same record.

The one that was better-observed (and better-appreciated, too) was the American soldier stationed in Iraq of the song “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me”. As you probably know, “Dad” is slang for “Baghdad”, and the song careens from triplet to triplet describing the horrors and tragedies of war without any kind of palliative. If anything, “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” conveys the idea that in war only the suffering is equally-distributed, along with a sense of doom that marks those involved for life. A song to listen to attentively, and ponder on for a long time…

But not certainly if you are listening to the full album in one sitting. “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” is directly followed by the masterful (and utterly unconnected) vignette of “Mr. Stupid”. A rocker with a phenomenal drive, “Mr. Stupid” has Richard digging deep in his repertoire of abandoned and dysfunctional characters, and coming with karat gold yet again. So does the Gaelic-inspired “Johnny’s Far Away” (with a couple that simply highlights the fallibility of human beings), and the tragedy-laden “Poppy Red”. And characters that embrace the violent side of affection are not absent, either – just listen to “I’ll Never Give It Up” for a precise example.

The one criticism that might be leveled at the disc is that it runs just a little too long. There are a series of songs in the middle that are not key to the appeal of the album, including “Bad Monkey”, “Sneaky Boy” and “Too Late To Come Fishing”. And I find the ska of “Francesca” a bit trying, even when the sax work has to be commended for its finesse. Continue reading

Mirror Blue (Richard Thompson) – Album Review

Richard Thompson Issued "Mirror Blue" In 1994, More Than Two Years After The Critically-acclaimed "Rumour And Sigh" Album. It Was Produced By Mitchell Froom Again.

Richard Thompson Issued "Mirror Blue" In 1994, More Than Two Years After The Critically-acclaimed "Rumour And Sigh" Album Was Released. It Was Produced By Mitchell Froom Again.

It remains something of a mystery why Richard Thompson did not capitalize on the success of “Rumour And Sigh” and took more than two years to deliver his next album. Well, it is a mystery only if you are not familiar with the man himself, that is. Thompson did never care about making “commercial” albums, and he has never player by the rules of the industry either. His music is something that is created in a context where expressions like “hit single” or “chart success” are either redefined or absolutely discarded. And there is no clearer example of that than the album he was to finally release long after “Rumour And Sigh” had run its course.

The album was to be titled “Mirror Blue” (after a poem by Lord Tennyson which is quoted on the booklet), and it would be the penultimate album that Mitchell Froom was to produce for Thompson. Many would point his fingers at the finished album, and cite Froom’s production as the reason it could not dent the charts. But today we know that Richard was the main instigator for the somehow disconcerting drum sound that was employed in the end. If anything, it seems as if Thompson was doing all he could to decommercialize the album, as if the successes attained by “Rumour And Sigh” were a cause of concern. More than anything, one is left feeling that Thompson came up with a disc to please his long time fans after having created one that pleased casual listeners, as if all he wanted to do was prove he could have mainstream success if he wanted to.

The themes he broaches are true to his best compositions – people who feel too much in too limited ways like the character from “For The Sake Of Mary” (and whose narrowness ultimately seals his fate) and delinquents like Shane and Dixie (two non-hopers who might as well have been called Sid and Nancy) are some of the protagonists you get to know during the disc’s duration. You feel you have met them before in different guises if you have been a listener of Thompson’s albums for a while, but there are topics which are infinite in themselves. Leaving aside the inherent nefarious thrill of such stories, I believe that tales about wrongdoing are always alluring if only because we believe deep down inside that by being exposed to other people’s faults me might be eventually able to address our own shortcomings. That might explain the popularity of songs like “1952 Vincent Black Lighting” from the previous album, and the heart-rending “Beeswing” from this one. “Beeswing” is a delicate Celtic ballad in which the fierceness of young love is demolished against the ineluctability of maturing. The final verse is bestial in its desolation. The listeners who have been there themselves will sink low for sure, and younger listeners will have one of the harder-hitting reality checks of their lives. Continue reading

The Old Kit Bag (Richard Thompson) – Album Review

The Cover To Richard Thompon's "The Old Kit Bag" (2003)

Richard’s first album of the century found him in a small label for the first time in more than two decades, and the record itself was to have a streamlined approach, with few musicians and a sound that was far removed from the layered approach that had marked/marred his 90s output. Perversely enough, the new formula worked quite magically – the record hit the Billboard Top 200, and the top 5 of the Indie charts. The truth is producer John Chelew came closer to capturing Richards’ rotund live sound than virtually anybody else – for sure much closer than Mitchell Froom.

The title of the album references a World War I song, as it is only fit since the record has a conceptual tinge of boys that grow to become soldiers only to be hit by the intricacies of destiny and the egotism and apathy of the adult world – “the fire in your eyes/how could they know”, Richard sings on the set opener, the fiercely beautiful “Gethsemane”. The first side of the record also has the Celtic-styled “One Door Opens”, probably one of the album highlights with vocalist  Judith Owen (a recent associate that joins long-time bassist Danny Thompson and drummer Michael Jerome) providing a rich backdrop, something she does not only on that tune but on more than half the tracks.

This backing becomes even more noticeable in one of the closing numbers, the tension-riddled “Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen”. Richard mutes the guitar, and he lets it ring only when the intensity is such that the lyrical flow demands a sturdier backbone so that the song won’t collapse.

“Word Unspoken, Sight Unseen” is placed next to the Eastern-derived “Outside Of The Inside”, which is (appropriately enough) a song about Muslim faith and the way a radical sees Western culture. Continue reading

Mock Tudor (Richard Thompson) – Album Review (Part 2)

(The first part of this review can be read here)

The second section of the album (“Heroes in the Suburbs”) is the one that includes “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)”, “Uninhabited Man”, and “Walking The Long Miles Home”. These are an idiosyncratic reagge-ish number, a celtic-flavored composition and a song which is “a little bit country” respectively. I especially like “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)”, a number in which the character conveys as much self-esteem as it is necessary for him to achieve his aim – don’t be fooled, he is not as  innocuous as he might seem. And “Walking The Long Miles Home” has catchy choruses on the strength of the rhyme scheme that is employed. The lyric is funny, too.

This part of the album also has “Dry My Tears And Move On”, a song not dissimilar to a soul ballad that might as well have the best middle eight of the whole record. Continue reading

Mock Tudor (Richard Thompson) – Album Review (Part 1)

Richard Thompson's "Mock Tudor" Was First Issued In 1999. It is Spli In Three Parts That Chronicle Life In The Suburbs During The 20th Century.

Richard Thompson's "Mock Tudor" Was First Issued In 1999. It is Split In Three Parts That Chronicle Life In The Suburbs All Through The 20th Century.

Mock Tudor was Richard Thompson’s final album under his Capitol Records’ contract. It was released in 1999, and it was the one album of the decade not produced by Mitchell Froom, the man who is known for his glossy approach to record-making. That is always a recurrent point when the album is discussed. The fact remains that Thompson is a gritty performer, and a rawer approach for capturing him in action always works best.

That is exemplified by the first three tracks, two of which were issued as singles (the polka “Cooksferry Queen” and “Bathsheba Smiles”), and that stand as very fine vignettes about outlaws and people who walk the line. “Cooksferry Queen” paints the picture of an outright ruffian that is transfixed by love, putting himself at the mercy of the other – as Yasu, the leader of the band Black Stones (or “Blast”) from the anime “Nana” used to say, those who once laughed at love will cry because of it in the end.

And “Batsheba Smiles” is a very pointed portrait of a woman akin to Coleridge’s Christabel, IE the kind of woman that is always there for everybody but never there for any person in particular. The chorus of the song is specially powerful, with the “Do you close your eyes to see miracles/Do you raise your face to kiss angels/Do you float on air to hear oracles” section showcasing the effects such a person has on others, and how initial admiration turns into bitterness very quickly indeed. Continue reading

Action Packed: The Best Of The Capitol Years (Richard Thompson) – Compilation Album

Where Can I Buy One Of Those?

Where Can I Buy One Of Those?

Although commercially Richard Thompson has never seen wildly successful days, the ‘90s will always remain as the closest he got to mass-popularity. I am more than sure that if the name Richard Thompson rings a bell when it comes to casual listeners, it is all because of songs released in that decade such as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, allegedly his most popular composition.

The whole decade Richard’s record company was Capitol. When they parted ways, this retrospective was issued. The CD features songs from every single album he produced during his tenure at Capitol, beginning with 1988’s “Amnesia” and ending with “Mock Tudor” (1999). It also has 2 rarities and a new track where Richard duets with son Teddy. That song is called “Persuasion” and it is a lilting ballad about second chances – definitely one of my personal favorites from this compilation.

In terms of approach, there are countless character sketches where Richard’s acidic vision of humankind is fully developed, including the minor-hit “I Feel So Good”, the startling “Cold Kisses” and “Cooksferry Queen”, a polka which has been drawn from “Mock Tudor”.

Continue reading

Richard & Linda Thompson – The Island Record Years (Compilation Album)

The CD Cover

The CD Cover

When Richard Thompson left Fairport Convention in 1971 he worked with his then wife Linda and released six albums of original compositions that met with commercial apathy. The first three were cut for Island, whereas the final three were released under the Chrysalis label. This compilation gathers together the most salient tracks from their first three records, as well as two songs from Richard’s first solo album (Henry The Human Fly, released in 1972 – a very whimsical record that sold abysmally).

It is often debated whether these three albums indeed represent the Thompson’s finest moments on record or not. I have not listened to the Chrysalis recordings so I can not say for sure, but what I have noticed is that whenever you watch a Richard Thompson documentary the songs that are always featured with wife Linda are the ones found on this compilation. Continue reading

Richard Thompson – General Introduction

A Recent Picture Of Mr. Thompson

A Recent Picture Of Mr. Thompson

I normally save General Introduction pages for artists that I know very well and that I feel confident talking about, either because I have their whole discography or a very representative number of albums, but this is an exception. I know virtually no other artist that captivates me the way Richard Thompson does, and if I have just a comparatively small number of his albums (two compilations, his three most recent solo discs and Fairport Convention’s “Unhalfbricking”) is because these records are impossible to find here in Uruguay. Continue reading