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|Richard Thompson: Bridging the Gap|
|Music - Feature Stories|
|Wednesday, 06 June 2007 03:36|
An unscientific survey of River Cities' Reader employees revealed that many people have never heard of Richard Thompson.
The lack of recognition is not exactly a surprise, because Thompson has never been able to parlay intense respect into sales. But he is an important artist, and one who has no difficulty bridging the gap between folk music and hard-edged rock. He also has a fantastic sense of humor, a rarity among "serious" artists.
So allow me to introduce him.
He's a novelty act who a few years ago released a record called 1,000 Years of Popular Music and meant it. The collection spanned a millennium and features Prince's "Kiss," Britney's "Oops! I Did It Again," and ABBA's "Money" along with songs as much as nine centuries older - all done with just voice, acoustic guitar, and percussion.
He's a folk and songwriting legend, a founding member of Fairport Convention who built a considerable critical following with that band in the late 1960s and recording with his then-wife, Linda Thompson, in the '70s.
And he's a six-string hero to boot, landing at number 19 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
Versatile beyond belief, Thompson is a spectacular interpreter, writer, and musician, at home in traditional, acoustic music and raucous electric workouts.
His new record Sweet Warrior isn't transcendent Thompson, but it's an excellent sampler of his talents and his style. It's as good a place to start as any.
Both his voice and his guitar tone are distinctive and acquired tastes. The voice has a deep, trembly brogue, while the guitar sounds pinched and tightly wound. Thompson's music pushes toward a release that he rarely allows, and that level of restraint can be both thrilling and frustrating.
Yet it's also perfectly appropriate given his characters, who can be bitter, scared, spurned, or mean, and rarely get any satisfaction.
On Sweet Warrior's "Mr. Stupid," the narrator has forced himself into a loop of performing that reinforces what others think of him: "If I say what's on my mind, dear / The judge will slap me down / You've got me in the corner / And it's only the second round / So I'll keep my mouth shut, darling / I'll be as quiet as a lamb / And I'll act just as dumb, dear / As you really think I am."
Although they're musically worlds apart, Thompson shares with Lyle Lovett a certain lyric hatefulness - particularly toward women - that's often pitched as worldly wit.
"Mr. Stupid" continues: "When your friends point out you're stuck with / A Neanderthal for an ex / Don't fret about it, darling / I still sign my name on checks / I can grunt my way through questions / I can scratch myself and howl / I can numb you with my dumbness / I can lay it on with a trowel."
It's a fantastically clever, vivid verse, but it can't disguise the boiling blood underneath. And while that might be excusable as an isolated occurrence, it's a theme that's always visible.
Thompson doesn't deny it. "I don't know why that is," he said in a 1999 interview. "Perhaps it's because I'm a twisted, screwed-up kind of person. All the therapy in the world doesn't seem to have helped."
That type of nakedness is a bit unseemly, but it's also refreshing. Even as it suggests some of Thompson's shortcomings as a human being, it also highlights his gifts as a writer, unafraid of digging into what most of us are a lot of the time: dumb and petty.
That's the redeeming honesty and insight in Thompson's darkness.
On "Dad's Gonna Kill Me," the narrator is a soldier in Iraq, and fear rules the day: "You hit the booby trap and you're in pieces / With every bullet your risk increases / Old Ali Baba, he's a different species / Nobody loves me here."
I don't mean to suggest that Thompson's music is dour or unfun. On the contrary, if the lyrics are a reflection of the artist's acidic side, the music and arrangements are his outlets for joy.
As for covering Britney, his treatment of "Oops! I Did It Again" sounds earnest rather than arch, with his quavering voice investing it with more dignity and emotion than you can imagine.
In the liner notes, Thompson writes: "Taken out of context, this is a pretty nice song."
But you'd only know that if you've heard his version.
Richard Thompson will perform at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City on Tuesday, June 12. The show starts at 8 p.m, and tickets are $28. More information and tickets are available at (http://www.englert.org).
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