In his hometown of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, Chris Thompson is a respected and highly visible figure in the local arts community. A multi-instrumentalist maverick musician, the dapper Thompson keeps himself busy with numerous diverse musical and other creative ventures.
One of his bands, Top Men, has in just a few years become something of a local legend. Described as ‘gentleman’s techno,’ the largely instrumental four-piece outfit draws inspiration from such as Daft Punk and Giorgio Moroder, every few months staging self-financed, one-off spectacular movie-themed shows (read: dance parties) that have consistently dazzled adoring Nanaimo audiences.
Thompson also helms The Wedding Band, a strictly for fun live outfit he describes as “holding to the ideal of The Big Chill soundtrack,” covering rock and soul classics from 1955 to 1972. And then there are Thompson’s annual Christmas albums of original material, one of which included a song about and, on the CD’s inner tray told the story of, a friend’s nasty tobogganing accident. It’s just a hunch, but I cannot imagine too many songs have ever been written about winter sports mishaps.
Ah, Venice, on the other hand, has since 2006 been Thompson’s folk/acoustic-oriented outlet for his most personal material. (Even then, folky or otherwise, in true eccentric Thompson fashion the sole instrumentation of one prior incarnation of Ah, Venice consisted only of two drummers and three bass guitarists.)
Movies loom large in Thompson’s world and, like Top Men, Ah, Venice was named after an Indiana Jones reference, but musically he views it as a home for “catchy, positive songs about heartache and regret.” Following Yellow House (2008) and I’m an Aeronautical Engineer (2010), the heartache and regret are in sharp focus on Go to Hell, Chris Thompson. The title is “a quote, and the album is about suffering the loss of the person who said it,” states Thompson. In fact, the title is taken from not one, but two songs of that name, written by a bitter ex-girlfriend. All but one song on the new Ah, Venice album deal with the disintegration of that relationship and, because of other external pressures, what Thompson describes as a “complicated time, emotionally.”
Go to Hell, Chris Thompson opens with the extraordinary Defiance, packing more emotional pain and cathartic release into its one minute and fifty-two seconds than is reasonable. Following a pretty acoustic guitar intro, in an anguished, cracked voice (which, at various points across the album’s duration, recalls Conor Oberst, David Byrne, John Darnielle or Eef Barzelay) Thompson delivers the killer lines, When it comes right down to it / And defiance is all I’ve got / I will not be broken by you…by you…by you…by you.
Thompson is joined by several other soaring voices on Defiance, the majority of whom within the fourteen contributors to this most ambitious of Ah, Venice’s releases to date, regularly gig and record in their own right. Such is the widespread acknowledgment of his skills and standing in his local music scene that Thompson can call on a wealth of talent to help realise his vision.
The riveting Forgot All My Lines segues into the six-minute Until it Had Become Me, a powerful epic ushered in by two minutes of stately piano and horns, before giving way to ukulele and acoustic guitar. It is no coincidence that this, Devil’s in the Details and the aching New Hotel in particular are reminiscent of Field Report, as Chris Porterfield’s literate storytelling is a clear and admitted influence on Thompson’s writing. Taylor Goldsmith, M.C. Taylor, the Guthrie’s Woody and Jim, The Acorn and Ben Folds are also noted influential presences helping to shape Thompson’s increasingly affecting material.
The album closes with the storming, Arcade Fire-esque We Go Where the Wild Geese Go, then one minute and forty seconds of just Thompson and a meandering clarinet on Very Good Friend. Interestingly, the lyric of the latter may either allude to a situation where Thompson and the ex-girlfriend at the heart of this story have crawled from the wreckage to remain civil, or else actually begin the story, taking the theme full circle. I guess only Thompson and the lady concerned hold the answer.
Recorded over two years while Thompson was grafting as a taxi driver and juggling his other pursuits, Go to Hell, Chris Thompson is in the grand scheme a limited local release, but that it is a beautifully realised concept album about love gone wrong lends it undeniable universal appeal. This deeply moving album deserves to be heard far and wide, well beyond the small Vancouver Island city in which it was crafted, and where the tale it presents took place. If, as I hope, it should indeed take off, Go to Hell, Chris Thompson could well be the breakthrough those who have followed this fine songwriter’s fortunes for a decade have long predicted.
Review by: David Morrison
Order it via Bandcamp