Friday, August 30, 2013

Music Library: Richard Thompson 1982-1998 (The Middle Period)

Continuing with Richard Thompson following his break-up with Linda. This is Thompson's middle period, when he was experimenting with his sound and figuring out the rest of his career.

1982: Live at Hunt's (September 22, 1982), Alone With His Guitar (September 29 and 30, 1982), and Nocturnal Emissions (1980-82) (all bootlegs). After sending Linda back to England at the end of the SOTL tour (which wrapped up in June or July), Thompson undertook a solo tour a few months later. The first two of these bootlegs showcase a man trying to put together a solo career. His voice strains to hit some of the notes. His acoustic playing lacks the incredible grace and fluidity that his solo shows will eventually become known for. However, these bootlegs are interesting. Thompson is working towards his solo persona, with the affable between-song patter punctuating the crackerjack emotional fireworks of his songs. Nocturnal Emissions, despite the frankly gross title, collects a number of interesting radio broadcasts, some with Linda, and some demos Thompson made for the Sugar Hill bluegrass label (and thank god he did not sign with them because they would have put his output into a literal wooden box).

1983: Hand of Kindness. Bringing in a horn-heavy big-band approach and a pub-rock vitality, Thompson's first proper solo album in over a decade features some killer songs, such as the Cajun-stomp "Tear-Stained Letter" and the fun audience-pleaser "Two Left Feet." And wow, this video is amazing. That's Thompson's secret weapon Pete Zorn as first sax. Plus a cigar-box guitar!

1984: Small Town Romance. Featuring live performances from the solo acoustic tour at the end of 1982, Small Town Romance has all of the uncertainty I mentioned above. It was out-of-print for many years. Not the worst thing in the world, but certainly not the best, either.

1985: Across A Crowded RoomAcross A Crowded Room Live (bootleg), Faithless (live), and "When The Spell Is Broken (Live At Park West Club, Chicago, March 28, 1985)" (the "You Don't Say" B-side). Crowded Room is Thompson's last album with Joe Boyd. The songs are excellent and the production more expansive than on the last two. The boot and the live album are both from the support tour, and both are blisteringly great. The bootleg is the audio from a live video that can be easily found on YouTube, while Faithless was an official release by Richard's label.  The B-side is a vinyl rip from either the same show as Faithless or nearby, as both were recorded in Chicago. Let me say a special word for "She Twists The Knife Again," which is almost post-punk in passion and approach.

1986: Daring Adventures and Live At the Bayou, November 2, 1986 (bootleg). Mitchell Froom took over as producer for Daring Adventures, and the result is, sadly, just flabbier. The songs have less crackle (the semi-racist "A Bone Through Her Nose" needs to be put down forever), although there are still some excellent works. The bootleg cooks pretty well, but the sound quality is a bit muffled.

1988: Amnesia, "Turning Of The Tide (Live)" (from Ben and Jerry's Newport Folk Festival '88), More Guitar (live), The Reckless Kind 7". With Amnesia, Thompson and producer Mitchell Froom fell into sync. The songs are excellent and Froom's production serves them far better than on Daring Adventures. Amnesia is one of my two favorites of Thompson's middle era. The version of "Turning Of The Tide" from Ben and Jerry's folk thingy is acoustic and pretty great, but, y'know, it's a fantastic song. More Guitar is another fan-club/private-label Thompson release consisting of tracks taken from a couple of shows in Washington DC in 1988. Thompson's buddy Henry Kaiser picked the tracks out and they focus on his guitar work, which was leaping into the "untouchable virtuoso" range around this time. The two Reckless Kind 7" B-sides are from the same shows as More Guitar. This version of "Can't Win" is from those DC shows, too. It originally surfaced on the Watching The Dark compilation and contains, as the video suggests, one of the most astounding guitar solos ever recorded.

1989: Loose ends, no album. "Here Without You" and "Hickory Wind" from Time Between: A Tribute To The Byrds. This is Thompson performing a Gene Clark song and a Gram Parsons song, which could be nothing but awesome.

1990: Loose ends, no album. "Two Left Feet" and "The Choice Wife" from Ben and Jerry's Newport Festival Vol. 2, "The May Day Psalter" (with Danny Thompson) from Circle Dance, and "Time To Ring Some Changes," "Mrs. Rita" (with June Tabor), and "Oh, I Swear" from the Hard Cash soundtrack. All I have from this year are loose ends.

1991: Rumor and Sigh. My first Richard Thompson album and favorite from this era. Like Henry The Human Fly, Rumor and Sigh jumps genres with aplomb, excelling at all. There's a pub-rocker ("Read About Love"), Stax soul ("Why Must I Plead"), a polka ("Don't Sit On My Jimmy Shands"), and, well, you get the picture. This is also the album that introduced the sublime "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," which Thompson has probably played at least 200 times in each of the 22 years since he wrote it, and I daresay that it is a song that Thompson would be happy to never have to play again. He rushes the damn thing so fast now that it is starting to lose all meaning, although the audience still eats it up. Still, it's his biggest "hit," and he's a pro. Here's a version from before he started to hate the song.

Loose ends from 1991: "She Moves Through The Fair" from Ben and Jerry's Newport Folk Festival, "Shoot Out The Lights" from The Best Of Mountain Stage Live, "Dimming Of The Day" (with Mary Black and Dolores Keane) from Bringing It All Back Home BBC Soundtrack, three radio tracks, five live tracks on the I Misunderstood promo disc, "Heartbreak Hotel" (with John Cale, Shawn Colvin, David Sanborn, and Jo-El Sonnier) from Night Music With David Sanborn, two live tracks from the Read About Love single. I'm a bit obsessive, ok?

1992: Even the album is a loose end. Sweet Talker: Original Music From the MovieLive In Flushing October 4, 1992 (bootleg), "The Job Of Journey Work" from Ferrington Guitars, "I Feel So Good" from In Their Own Words. Sweet Talker is nothing great, although it has the music for the song "Persuasion," which will eventually become a fan favorite. The bootleg has decent sound quality and is a cooking acoustic show similar to the first one I saw in this same year. The two loose ends are both fine.

1993: Watching The Dark (compilation), King Of Bohemia (bootleg), Live At Crawley (bootleg), "Two Left Feet" from Live In Basingstroke, "Skull and Crossbones" from Medium Rare (XRT Radio) and Persuasion 7" (with Tim Finn). Watching The Dark was such a phenomenal compilation album for a cult artist like Thompson, combining album tracks with astonishing live versions and utter rarities impossible to find in the pre-Internet days. King Of Bohemia collects two live-in-the-studio radio shows, and Live At Crawley showcases Thompson's collaboration with the excellent Danny Thompson from Pentangle. I bought this as a bootleg in 1993, but Thompson later released it as an official live album on his private label. Of the loose tracks, the "Persuasion" single has the song with Finn's lyrics in the form that Thompson's fans know today.

1994: Mirror Blue, Doom and Gloom (fan compilation), Two Letter Words (live), "I Can't Wake Up To Save My Life" from ONXRT, two live tracks from the BBC. I was so excited when Mirror Blue came out and so disappointed with the actual album. It has some great songs ("Mingus Eyes" is my favorite) and some that never should have seen the light of day ("Fast Food," anyone?). Doom and Gloom was a fanclub release that collected rarities and live tracks between 1968 and 1994, and Two Letter Words was a Thompson private-label release that captures his live band in action in 1994. The live performances were far better than the versions on Mirror Blue.

1995: "Beeswing" from Live At The World Cafe, Vol. 1. One loose end for this year and that's all. I'm not as crazy about this song as some of Thompson's fans. To me, it is pretty, but it mythologizes a hippie relationship in a "weren't we all crazy?" way that I utterly fail to connect with. I mean, yes, she ends up a junkie, but the song is chock-full of unfortunate nostalgia. Makes a lot of Thompson's Boomer fans happy, though, so there's that.

1996: You? Me? Us?, A Rare Thing (bootleg), "Who Were You Thinking Of/96 Tears" (with David Byrne), four more live tracks. You? Me? Us? was Thompson's last album with Mitchell Froom producing, and I'm of mixed mind about it. See, I don't like this album much at all, but it's not really Froom's fault. Many of the songs are only half-cooked, which is on Richard. I hear from Thompson's fans don't like the Froom period, which I think is because they don't like the experimentation. They don't want Thompson to do anything other than play clean because I think that they are fundamentally conservative about the man and their music. They want him to be a certain person, and he has been happy to comply for pretty much the whole of his later period. But I think the experimentation of his middle era was good for Thompson, and I wish he would do it again. When he popped up on the Grizzly Man soundtrack working with Jim O'Rourke, I was hoping that they would collaborate on something. O'Rourke has an excellent ear for folk music and some excellent intuition for interesting production. But no. Anyway, You? Me? Us? is split into an acoustic side and an electric side, which is an interesting experiment, even if it doesn't fully work here. The best songs are the rockers "Put It There, Pal" and "Bank Vault In Heaven," both of which are screaming out for epic guitar solos. The folkier songs ("Burns Supper" in particular) are not quite finished, but most are built around solid foundations. A Rare Thing is an acoustic recording from the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill, and I was there.

1997: Industry (with Danny Thompson), "Beat The Retreat" from Folk Live From Mountain Stage, and "From Galway To Graceland" from Live At The Iron Horse. Industry was an interesting collaboration with Danny Thompson which veered between Richard's Woody Guthrie-esque working class anthems and Danny's jazz stylings with his band Whatever.

1998: The Bones Of All Men (with Philip Pickett) and Celtschmerz (live). The Bones Of All Men is an early music collaboration and I hate it like I hate all early music. Celtschmerz is another live private-label release taken from a tour where Thompson played a lot of fan favorites with his son Teddy for accompaniment.


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