Electric which someone calculates to be Richard Thompson’s 40th release, features the English folk-rock icon in a power trio setting, with plenty of power provided by drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk, both of whom have been playing with Thompson for some time now. Nashville resident Buddy Miller, one of alt-country’s most popular singers, songwriters and guitarists, produced the album in his home studio with minimal overdubs and a small handful of guests. The results add up to an album that I immediately like better than any Thompson studio release since 1999’s Mock Tudor. It has a fresh, vibrant and organic feel to it, not surprising given that the 16 songs from which the 11 on the basic album were selected were laid down in four days. (It’s also available in an expanded deluxe edition with more tracks.)
And it’s a strong set of songs – overall as strong as anything he’s done in years. The rockers rock indeed, starting with the opening track “Stony Ground.” The sound here is reminiscent of Miller’s award-winning work with Robert Plant, both solo and with Alison Krauss, and it’s heavy on the percussion, with Jerome’s kit, a tambourine, handclaps and possibly more driving the rhythm. There’s something droning in the background of this gleefully nasty song about a man’s willingness to humiliate himself for his lust – an organ, accordion, melodica, I can’t quite make it out yet. “Stuck On The Treadmill” treads familiar ground for Thompson, last visited on his jazzy duo album with bassist Danny Thompson (no relation) Industry – the plight of the blue-collar working stiff. It’s an explicitly Brit-folk-rock modal tune and arrangement, the guitar riffs and tone reminiscent of “Backstreet Slide,” for example. “Straight and Narrow” employs good old rock ‘n’ roll to paint a picture of a vampish female, as Thompson’s rumbling, distorted guitar trades licks with what sounds like a Farfisa organ (nice touch!). I can easily imagine Gene Vincent singing this one, perhaps backed by the similarly roaring guitar histrionics of Link Wray. My favorite of the rockers is “Sally B,” an RT rarity in that it actually has some blues in its DNA. This is entirely a trio piece, and the three musicians really gel, Prodaniuk’s bass doubling RT’s vocals on the chorus, and a really killer (though short) guitar solo on the outro. I still don’t know what this one’s about; early guesses are either a class-crossing love song or a sly commentary on the U.S. mortgage crisis.
In interviews leading up to the release of Electric Thompson talked about what he called a ’60s-style funky sound on the recording, and joked about a new genre, funk folk. I knew what he was talking about when I first heard the recording of “Good Things Happen To Bad People.” I’d previously heard the song once or twice when Thompson sang a solo acoustic version of it in concert in the past couple of years, but not like this. Think “Purple Rain”-era Prince on this arrangement of a sly song about a betraying lover – big sing-along chorus, layers of acoustic guitars behind Thompson’s chiming electric and the rhythm section’s dancefloor-filling beat.
Speaking of the ’80s, take a listen to “Where’s Home.” This one sounds to me like a tribute to REM (who covered his “Wall Of Death” on a ’90s tribute disc), back when they were alt-rockers on the American university scene. This pensive number, perhaps inspired by a musician’s rootless life, is filled out by layers of sound from Thompson’s chiming electric guitar, some strummed acoustics and a mandolin, plus fiddle from guest Stuart Duncan and harmony vocals from Siobhan Maher Kennedy.
In spite of the album’s title, it’s not all amplified, electric rock. The second track, in fact, is a lovely ’60s-inspired ballad titled “Salford Sunday,” with Thompson fingerpicking a plugged-in acoustic and dubbing in a mandolin. Even though the subject matter deals with romantic disappointment in a dreary Manchester suburb, it’s a big, warm, friendly golden retriever of a song, with lovely harmony vocals from Kennedy, a jaunty melody and lots of rattling and clattering percussion.
Electric is available as an LP (with MP3 download), CD and deluxe CD.
New West / Proper, 2013