Friday, April 23, 2010

Music Library: Linda Thompson

Linda Thompson - Dreams Fly Away: A History of Linda Thompson (released 1996, recorded early 70s-mid 80s), Fashionably Late (2002), and Versatile Heart (2007).

Linda Thompson Kenis was the greatest instrument for the music of Richard Thompson.  The guy might be the greatest guitarist of his generation and he might have dozens of other instruments in his tool belt, but his music never sounded better than when his then-wife Linda breathed sweetness and light into his trademark darkness.  Her nuance, her dramatic reading, her vulnerability in channeling his words and music: these create a listening experience that is nothing short of sublime.

As I've written about at length elsewhere, there are two versions of their final album together Shoot Out The Lights.  The first was produced by Gerry Rafferty and sounds slick and dated to these ears, with cheap vintage-1980 synthesizer sounds, a rhythm sound that is warbly and thin, and lots of production flourishes that bury the songs.  The second was the album as we know it: austere, direct, and timeless.  Linda has long maintained, though, that she likes the Rafferty version better.  "I like the slick stuff," she said.

Her first solo album, 1985's One Clear Moment, which she made with Rafferty's keyboardist Betsy Cook, bears this out.  Slick to a fault, it cakes Linda Thompson (not yet Kenis)'s lily-perfect voice and songs with the slickest shit from 1985's version of electropop.  Herein lies my problem.  I want to believe - in fact, I've taken it as an article of faith - that most artists will better serve their material if given the freedom to create what they want along with a sympathetic producer.  But in the real world, there are many, many examples to the contrary.  Arthur Lee in the 70s.  Neil Young in the 80s.  Garth Brooks as Chris Gaines.  Ah, strike that last one.

One Clear Moment is the work of an artist whom I admire making the music that she wants to make, and I hate it.  It is, in the deathless words of Samuel Goldwyn, worse than bad: it's mediocre.  As a fan, I don't want her to experiment, or at least, I don't want her to experiment unsuccessfully.  This is not how experimentation works, I know, but what's particularly galling in this case is that Linda Thompson made One Clear Moment and then no further album for 17 years.  Hysterical dysphonia: the psychological inability to sing.  To sing now requires painful botox injections in her throat.  Think of that: one of the most extraordinary voices of her generation and it takes a painful shot to the throat to unlock it.  The next time you hear a pretentious ass of your acquaintance explain about how he or she suffers for his or her art, please take this as permission to punch him or her in his or her overprivileged and self-indulgent neck.

In fact, as I write this, sitting in the Charlotte airport, some kid with long hair is playing some seriously boring jammy pseudo-bluegrass bullshit over and over again on his acoustic.  I'm tempted to take my own advice.  The guy needs to suffer before inflicting his art on innocent bystanders.

To the music.  Dreams Fly Away is a collection of songs from her ten-year collaboration with Richard Thompson along with a few from afterwards.  There's a great story in the liner notes about how she was introduced to the Everly Brothers in the years after her marriage and collaboration with Richard had fallen apart.  When they found out who she was, they took her hand and sang "Dimming of the Day" to her.  Wow.

Dreams Fly Away has a few album tracks, but it's mostly demos and live recordings that tend to showcase Linda Thompson at her best.  I'm not crazy about the Rafferty session tracks or the music from One Clear Moment, but they do make the tracks around them sound better.

Her more recent albums Fashionably Late and Versatile Heart are both lovely albums, but (and here I'm fickle, perhaps) they don't quite muster the passion of her early work with Richard Thompson.  They're wonderful for what they are, though, and I wouldn't trade them for two decade's worth of One Clear Moments.  I especially love her duets with her son Teddy, who has a voice that I tend to compare with hers when he's on his own, except that here he sounds much more like his father than I ever suspected.  And she sounds like herself, not an instrument at all but someone who has lost and found something very important.


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