Sunday, May 18, 2008
RT: The Life and Music of Richard Thompson
by Simon Reynolds
There’s an in-built contradiction with the Box Set. Monuments to artists who are institutions, their monumental scale and price ensures they sell almost exclusively to diehard fans; they, in turn, won’t buy the boxes unless they’re crammed with things they don’t already own. Free Reed took the “rarities and alternate takes” syndrome to the limit with their career summations of Ashley Hutchings, Martin Carthy, and Dave Swarbrick. RT is no different: hitherto unreleased live renditions from 2001, or 1989, or 1996, are consistently chosen over definitive, much-loved studio versions from 1973. The tribute ends up omitting the very artifacts on which the legend was built.
The box’s copiously detailed booklet (and at 168 pages it’s more like a book) begins with a quotation from High Fidelity: Hornby’s saddo-hero informing his curious but under-informed girlfriend that Thompson is “a folk/rock singer and England’s finest electric guitarist”. Even if you’d add “one of” in front of “England’s finest”, the emphasis in that concise description is spot on. Thompson is an exceptional guitar player, a fine songwriter, a decent singer. Listening to RT’s five discs, you get the sense that the guitar is his true voice. His actual pipes, capable enough, are texturally rather plain. Still, that frugality of timbre suits the bleakness of his songbook, evident in titles like “Ghosts In the Wind,” “Cold Kisses”, “Night Comes In” and (bejeezus!) “Drowned Dog, Black Night”. Sometimes the wintry cheerlessness of it all makes you want to put on a sweater and huddle under the duvet.
Thompson fan-sites invariably feature guitar tabs and in-depth analysis of his technique, and “Shine In the Dark,” the most compelling disc in this box, showcases his virtuosity with extended live work-outs. “Valerie” starts as a Buddy Holly-like ditty but thankfully spirals loose into writhing ivy-trails of finger-picking. The blandly attractive AOR-chug of “For Shame of Doing Wrong” becomes the launchpad for some stingingly lyrical leads, while the accordion-laced “Calvary Cross” escalates into a sky riven by lightning-forks of raga-rock. “Sloth,” already loooooong on Fairport’s Full House, gets stretched to 13 minutes of lustrous tangles and needlepoint iridescence. Also deserving to be filed under “guitar hero” but appearing on disc one (themed around topical or social comment songs) is a 1995 live “Shoot Out The Lights,” on which Thompson’s zig-zag riffs have an almost postpunk angularity.
There’s a disc of rarities, another of cover versions (including an effectively fraught take on Britney’s “Oops I Did It Again”, and a fuzz-box sprint through Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane Pour Moi”), and there’s Finding Better Words, billed as the essential RT songs but, naturally, spurning the recorded versions. A lo-fi run-through of “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” offers accordions instead of the Island album’s wonderful brass band. A potent solo “Meet On the Ledge” fares better. But the Linda-graced “Dimming of the Day” underlines that he’s very much Lindsay Buckingham to her Stevie, as do versions of “Walking on a Wire,” “The Great Valerio,” and “Never Again,” twinkles of lovely desolation amid the workmanlike Disc One.
When all’s said and all's done, this one’s for the fans.