Richard Thompson has always been a fairly prolific musician, but these past few years have been extraordinary. In addition to regular studio releases with his trio, solo and band tours, cruise tours and arts camps, he keeps popping out solo acoustic releases of hits, misses, follies and rarities, recorded at his home studio. The release of Acoustic Rarities is the second of this year, following the release of Acoustic Classics Vol. II in August. Richard Thompson is dropping Acoustic Rarities as he heads out on a UK tour.
These are all new recordings of some of the more obscure songs in the Thompson catalogue, some of which previously existed only as cover versions. He plays and sings these 14 songs with great verve, energy and wit, and of course the consummate skill we’ve come to expect from this treasured guitarist and songwriter.
Thompson has a fan base that goes back to the late ’60s when he was a founding member of Fairport Convention, but he also continues to make new fans with his non-stop touring, music camps and supporting gigs opening for the likes of Emmylou Harris. The two Acoustic Classics discs have played largely to these latter fans. Acoustic Rarities bows to both.
For fans both new and longtime there are many unreleased songs in the style of his output since about 2000, like the rocking opener “What If,” a quintessentially British put-down song with multi-tracked guitars and vocals that could be an outtake from any one of his 21st Century releases. The album is rather front-loaded with these unreleased gems, including the music-hall ballad “They Tore The Hippodrome Down,” the tale of a loveless sad sack “livin’ on memories”; the march-time anthem “Rainbow Over The Hill,” an uncharacteristically cheery sort of song that was previously covered by Albion Band.
One that’s decidedely not so cheery is “Seven Brothers.” This spooky tale features seven angels of death (who, in a darkly humorous throw-away line, inherited the work from their father) sitting by the roadside claiming the travelers who pass by, foretelling the grisly fate of each. Speaking of Albion Band, this one was previously covered by Blair Dunlop, the young English singer-songwriter who’s the son of Ashley Hutchings and Shirley Dunlop. RT plays it in one of his trademark open tunings, just the man and his guitar and those dark fingerpicked chords, putting me in mind of any one of several songs from the You?Me?Us? era.
Thompson seems to have a rather low opinion of the male of our species, who in his songs nearly always seem to be involved in some kind of bad behavior, whether it’s violence and crime or merely deception – of others or themselves. While the album opens with a portrait of a rather gross piece of male humanity on “What If,” it closes with “She Played Right Into My Hands,” a gentler look at a comically self-deceived fellow who’s been lucky in love but still has to claim it as some kind of a “win.”
A couple of the more interesting songs come from the recent period in which Thompson staged a dark operetta called “Cabaret of Souls” in London. “I Must Have A March” is a jaunty waltz-time cabaret song of a drag queen who demands suitable drama for her entrance, while “I’ll Take All My Sorrows To The Sea” is from his song suite “Interviews With Ghosts,” one of his projects with the Idlewild arts camp.
A Richard Thompson concert isn’t complete without a topical novelty song. In recent years these have ranged from “Madonna’s Wedding” to “Dear Janet Jackson” about that singer’s baring of mammary flesh during the Super Bowl halftime show. Thompson tosses in one of the better and more durables ones here, his Frank Loesser-style paean to the scientist and humanist “Alexander Graham Bell.”
There are several songs for the old-timers among the fans and the newcomers who perhaps have never heard some of the songs from the Fairport, Richard-and-Linda, and early solo years. These include the elegiac “Never Again,” sung by Linda on the 1975 album Hokey Pokey and inspired by the deaths of some friends in a car wreck during the Fairport years; and “Poor Ditching Boy,” one of many stellar songs on RT’s first solo release Henry The Human Fly. Also “End Of The Rainbow,” which may be one of Thompson’s darkest and most pessimistic songs ever. This one he sang solo on his first album with Linda, 1974’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, widely hailed as their best and one of the top British folk-rock albums of all time. All three of these albums are available in recent remastered versions and are definitely worth picking up for those new fans who like these songs.
From the Fairport years there are two, both from the same album, 1970’s Full House. These are the enigmatic “Sloth,” an epic about love and war; and the very traditional-sounding “Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman.” These are a couple of astoundingly mature songs from a very young Thompson, who at the time was a shy guitarist who left the singing to others – so it’s grand to have these in his own voice all these years on.
Finally there’s the matter of “Push And Shove.” It’s a curious little song, part rockabilly, part Cajun, part cynical, part romantic, about how “you’ve gotta push and shove if you wanna be loved.” It’s a slight song that Thompson once maybe said he didn’t like very much, but it’s a rocker and lots of fun, also a great favorite among certain longtime fans, so it’s nice to see it included.
Because it’s called solo and acoustic, don’t get the idea that this is a boring singer-songwriter album. Thompson is one of the most skilled guitar players on the planet, and he shows off his chops on nearly every song. He also includes some mandolin and an occasional harmonium, and multi-tracks the guitars and vocals on some songs. The song selection, the playing and the arrangements all highlight the diverse skills of Richard Thompson, a non-pareil entertainer of studio and stage.
(Beeswing via Proper Distribution, 2017)
Here’s a passable audience video of “They Tore The Hippodrome Down” from the 2017 Cropredy Festival.