In this case, the cover says it all.
Richard Thompson is at the top or near the top of two of my mythical Favorites Lists. He’s my absolute favorite songwriter and he’s also one of the finest guitarists to ever put fingers to a fretboard. The cover of Electric tells you that this album is primarily a showcase for his guitar skills; if you’re looking for songwriting excellence up to his usual standards, you’re not going to find it here. The songs on Electric are vehicles for his guitar skills instead of remarkable displays of his lyrical talent.
I’m good with that. Among the many deficits in today’s music, one of the most glaring is that there are few artists out there who know how to play a fucking instrument. The mass of crap I listen to every New Release Tuesday shows that most contemporary artists have either delegated the task of instrumentation to software, or play predictable, catchy, recycled riffs designed to stimulate the limited aesthetic capabilities of the moronic sheep who flock to buy their new releases. With a very few exceptions, if you want to hear music crafted by sensitive human hands instead of indifferent algorithms, you have to look to the older folks: Sonny Landreth, Martin Barre and Richard Thompson.
Don’t get me started on today’s singers. Okay, I’m started! Today’s singers fall into three categories: those who can’t survive without auto-tune; guys who sing off-key in the low registers because women who rarely get laid have been programmed to find that sexy; and chicks with thin voices you can barely hear over the noise of the mix, a strategy that makes them sound unattainable and therefore more desirable. It’s obvious on Electric that Richard Thompson avoided the first two and is obviously incapable of emulating the third. Age has slightly diminished his vocal range, and at times you can hear him straining a teeny bit to hit the high notes.
I’m good with that, too. I’ll take real over fake any day.
This is a challenging album to review, which is why I’ve put it off for so long (it came out six months ago). The risk is that I might overstate the excellence of his guitar work because I’m hearing it in the context of a musical wasteland. When you’re horny, the homely one looks pretty damned hot when he or she is the only one available on a Saturday night. I finally decided that since I recognize that the songs themselves are not at the level of songs like “Beeswing,” “Cooksferry Queen” or “Hope You Like the Real Me,” I have retained my critical acumen and can forge ahead with an objective and measured response to the music.
The man is on fire!
The dynamics of this album become clear in the opening track, “Stony Ground.” The music is similar to “MGB-GT” from Mirror Blue. The lyrics, which tell the tale of a horny old bastard who thinks exclusively with his dick, are playful and certainly competent, but hardly represent his best work. But my fucking God, the guitar! Combining the bite of rock with flavors of British folk, blues and bagpipe, the counterpoints, fills and solos are to die for. The extended fade solo features playfulness with precision as his left hand dances over the fretboard while his right hand picks, plucks and dampens with amazing ease. He makes engaging complexity sound so effortless that I haven’t used my major stress releaser in weeks: my cheap-ass Strat with Pignose amp. While I’m pretty nimble on the flute, I’m a guitar klutz, and I primarily use the set-up to create noise, since that’s pretty much all I’m capable of doing. After listening to Electric, I feel rather silly and embarrassed, so I’m going to have to go back and listen to George Harrison’s clunky lead solos from the early Beatles albums to regain my confidence.
Re-reading that passage about my competence with the flute gave me some insight as to why I give better blow jobs than hand jobs. Apparently I have strong oral gratification needs that the flute satisfies but the guitar does not. Maybe if I did the Ronnie Wood/Keith Richard cigarette-in-the-mouth trick my guitar skills might improve.
Then again, maybe not. I’ve tried that with hand jobs but the guys always come in thirty seconds. Makes for a short evening.
Getting back to Richard, he displays his exceptional picking skills in “Salford Sunday.” He’s one of the few guitarists I know who is equally competent at acoustic and electric styles, which certainly pays dividends in this piece, where he plays his Fender in a more acoustic style. He also adds a touch of mandolin that brightens the mix, and his choice of Siobhan Maher Kennedy as his harmonic companion on vocals enhances the beauty of the piece. What I love about his guitar here is that he keeps it subtle and simple so as not to bury the lovely main riff and melodic line in a frivolous display of pyrotechnics.
“Sally B” is a tough song to figure. I don’t know which Sally B he’s talking about: a.) the skin care company; b.) the B-17 with the full nude on the fuselage; c.) a lady of unknown origins. There are indications that her politics or style will play well in the American south (“Now they talk way down south/Without moving their mouth/And the houses are old antebellum/There you’ll find supporters/Revolutionary daughters/Who’ll believe everything that you tell ’em.”) It’s all very intriguing, but what makes the song work is once again the guitar solo, this one a touch more avant-garde with out-of-scale explorations. Next comes “Stuck on the Treadmill,” a song with fairly pedestrian lyrics describing the working class cycle of economic dependence and unexpected job loss. Again, what matters is the guitar: here it’s more single string work with superb note attack that makes it fly. Both of these songs sound a bit muffled, indicating a commitment to avoid slick production values, but I think a touch more mid and high EQ might have cleaned things up a bit.
“My Enemy” features a fascinating melody with semi-operatic octave leaps and Siobhan’s excellent and subtle harmonizing. The lyrics don’t leap out at you with stunning metaphors, but the insight into human psychology is brilliant. Richard Thompson expresses the realization that the human need for opposites (championed by Blake and symbolized by yin and yang) can make for strange bedfellows when the need is distorted by competition:
Now we’re just two old men on the brink
Each waiting for the other to blink
If I should lose you, I’d be left with nothing but fate
As I see your life fall apart
I should smile but I don’t have the heart
At the end of the day, it’s still too much effort to hate
The most immediately accessible and catchy song on Electric is “Good Things Happen to Bad People.” The groove here is so compelling that you can ignore the simple lyrics just like you do with “Louie, Louie” or James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” The lyrics work with the music, and here that’s all that matters. The Rickenbacker-like tone he gets out of his Strat to open the piece is marvelous, but for the main solo, Richard flips the switch to get a more classic rock tone and gives us a ripping performance. Keep your eyes on his right hand while watching this fan video of a live performance; it’s a fabulous demonstration of the pick-and-fingers hybrid technique he does so well and I can only dream about:
Before I go any further, I feel the need to make a qualifying statement for those who are accustomed to “either/or” reviewers (fawning or sadistic). While Richard Thompson’s lyrics on Electric aren’t of the level of quality of much of his previous work, Richard Thompson on an off-day is a hundred times better than most. Here he’s chosen to simplify the lyrics and pay more attention to their sonic context than their depth.
I’m good with that.
Back to our story—-next up is the bittersweet but exceedingly lovely “Where’s Home?” This is a song that I strongly identify with, having been driven by the violent mindlessness of my home country to move to a place on the other side of where my values aren’t so far out of sync with the majority. The lyrics are even more applicable to my earlier departure from San Francisco, a city that has gone down the shithole in the pursuit of mindless wealth, health nazism and devaluation of the arts. I remember walking in my old stomping grounds on 24th Street in Noe Valley during one visit home and feeling the same sense of stranger-in-a-strange-land that Richard Thompson describes here:
I used to know this street
someone changed the name
signpost turned around
and nothing looks the same
but I belong somewhere,
I belong somewhere.
I guess that somewhere is Paris or Nice, and you’re probably saying, “Then what the hell does she have to bitch about?” The truth is I had a very strong attachment to my home and my city, and there will always be an empty place in my heart for what was. This song does make me tear up a bit, and while I know that all change involves loss, the loss part always sucks.
Acoustic guitar opens “Another Small Thing in Her Favour,” a vignette about a divorce or separation. This is one of the finer songs on the album in terms of lyrical quality and insight regarding the peculiar dynamics of human relationships. Richard Thompson has always been a master at sad and bitter irony, and he is spot-on here. Told from the male half’s perspective, the story makes you smile and feel the pain at the same time:
She said she felt bad
For the home that we had
And the effort I’d wasted to save her
She told me as much
As she slowly let out the clutch
That’s another small thing in her favour
And omigod the lead solo. Too brief! Too brief! The combination of sparkling runs and pizzicato bits is pure delight. Richard’s voice is particularly full and deep here; no one sings the sad song as well as he.
By contrast, “Straight and Narrow” sounds like a cross between Al Kooper and The Doors: straightforward sixties organ rock with a Richard Thompson touch. The sound here is also a bit muffled, making it sound more garage, like an old 45 without the scratches. The juxtaposition between “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” and “The Snow Goose” makes sense, because it serves to break up two contemplative numbers. “The Snow Goose” is pure acoustic, something I always look forward to on Richard Thompson records because he has a feel for the acoustic guitar that can’t be taught . . . the relationship is synergistic instead of man-using-tool. The imagery he chooses here stands in rough contrast to the softness of melody and accompaniment:
Northern winds will cut you
Northern girls will gut you
Leave you cold and empty
Like a fish on the slab
Allison Krauss does a nice job with the harmonic touches, but this is song is all about Richard Thompson’s voice and guitar, and the magic that combination creates.
Electric ends with a song driven by acoustic guitar, the reflective, country-tinged “Saving the Good Stuff for You.” The touch of fiddle from Stuart Duncan and the harmonies provided by Sioban give the song a definite bluegrass tinge, but the execution is much smoother than you find in typical bluegrass. The emotional dynamic of this song is exquisite, as it’s a dramatic monologue from a guy who has been an abusive loser all his life and has finally mellowed out now that his “old head is peppered with grey.”
Now I’m glad that you never did know me
When I was out of control
I was hollow right there in the middle
Some people get sucked in the hole
But I cut myself loose from the old ways
And you’re all that I’m clinging to
All the time oh I didn’t know it
I was saving the good stuff for you.
I wish we had heard from the lady in this couple to find out if this was a true turnaround or more bullshit from the black hole . . . the narrator’s continual recounting of his sins tells me he’s still messing up and seeking forgiveness from self and other. Even when he’s not dazzling you, Richard Thompson still has enough songwriting talent to engage and challenge the listener, as this last song clearly demonstrates.
Electric is now one of my favorite Richard Thompson albums because it is an absolutely delightful listening experience. Some of his other albums (Amnesia is a good example) feature songs that blow you away with the songwriting craftsmanship but also contain tunes where he gave it a good shot but fell short of excellence. The quality on Electric is much more consistent and the well-structured flow of the songs makes the experience intensely enjoyable. Any time you want to listen to a true guitar artisan at work, Electric will scratch that itch.