Richard Thompson – Acoustic Classics II
Beeswing – 11 August 2017
It’s a great idea, cataloguing Richard Thompson’s substantial material into stripped back acoustic versions as a collection; the songs themselves are of such high quality that they’ll be around forever, and we all know that Thompson is a hugely accomplished guitarist. His career is a frightening one, spanning five decades thus far, starting in 1967 with Fairport Convention when the guitarist was in his late teens. We can be thankful then for a compilation series of Thompson’s output and also interested in hearing the songs in a contemporary setting. It’s a reassuring and accessible run so far and a very useful gateway for anybody looking to familiarise themselves with some of the most important song writing in modern British folk history.
This second volume starts by jolting the listener into a slightly jarring ‘She Twists the Knife Again’, from the 1985 solo album Across a Crowded Room, a set susceptible to critics fine-toothing it for cynical details hidden in the lyrics shedding light on Richard’s split with wife Linda. Regardless, it’s the only song on this selection that sits slightly incongruously with the rest; the originally snarling and confident vocal is rather more nervy in the arrangement and the frenetic strum of the acoustic suits the song less well than the Stratocaster in this isolated instance. Interestingly, four songs on, we are treated to ‘A Heart Needs a Home’, from Richard and Linda’s 1975 Hokey Pokey release. The song was considered a catharsis to the rest of the material on that set, but here it sounds pure and beautiful, working far better than the opener, although in an ideal world you would have Linda’s vocal on there, singing the gentle ‘I’m never going to run away’ lyric.
The song that rights any minor wrongs caused by ‘She Twists the Knife Again’ follows on from that track and is a wonderful companion to ‘A Heart’. It’s about time that songs from the 1996 double album You? Me? Us? are heard in a purer sonic environment, and hearing ‘The Ghost of you Walks’ here immediately makes us wonder why the songs on that record were given such strange gauzy production. Like ‘A Heart’, the lyrics are simple, but all the more effective for it, a skill reminiscent of Townes Van Zandt: ‘At least we lived, took it all at a rush / At least we loved too much / Felt too much, cared too much’. It draws the listener in close and paints a painful yet positive picture. It’s a protagonist without regret, but acutely sensitive to the memories and, crucially, it works so much better here, with sympathetic and intuitive guitar playing.
Jumping forward again, following on from ‘A Heart’ and creating a high-quality run, is ‘Pharaoh’, from Richard’s 1988 Amnesia recording, an album that saw him hit form again after Across a Crowded Room and Daring Adventures caused Polydor to sever their contract with him. ‘Pharaoh’ sits in this set so well; the slight touch of reverb on the vocal creates an eerie atmosphere around the ‘we’re all working for the Pharaoh’ refrain. It’s a great song that benefits very much from the super-subtle production attention to detail. Indeed, it would be a mistake to dismiss Classics II as a set of songs simply pared back and arranged to (always first rate) acoustic guitar. Touches like the light vocal effect on ‘Pharaoh’ softly reassure us that this album has been put together with skill and care.
But of course, the key thing about the project is that it does enable songs from many years, albums and moods, to hang together and work alongside one another. And it does this very well, as demonstrated fully on centrepiece ‘Gethsemane’ from 2003’s The Old Kit Bag, ‘Devonside’ from 1983’s Hand of Kindness and old favourite ‘Meet On the Ledge’, from way back in 1969 and What we did on our Holidays. This multi-generational core of the album best displays the journey of the singer but, importantly, flows more coherently than a straight forward best of set. This ‘Devonside’ is a concise and simple version of the full band backed original from Thompson’s first solo album since the marital split. It feels like there is less pressure to tick boxes here, so the electric solo is acoustic of course, but also subtle and elegant. The song feels less self-conscious than the original when the whole fan base was listening for the first time to an album without Linda.
‘Meet on the Ledge’ is a song that has stood the test of time, but is also one that Thompson himself claims to not know the meaning of, but was too shy back then to admit it. The tune was a Fairport staple for many years, and the audience knew it as the anthemic lights out song; there wouldn’t be another following it. Here it is nestled into the second half of the record and at just over three minutes, feels effective but, perhaps, slightly too bare and young in its nude environment. Rumor and Sigh, Thompson’s American-English effort, probably best linked to the classic ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, gets two outings here with ‘Keep Your Distance’ and final song ‘Why Must I Plead?’ By this point in 1991, he was integrated into LA living and wanted to put out an equivalent to the American highway album. Although the Brits found the spelling of rumour offensive (it could have been ironic, but in fact, the album cover had already been painted, and Thompson kept mum), the album is well regarded. The two tracks come across well here, with ‘Keep your Distance’ employing backing vocals and lending itself well to the mode.
‘Why Must I Plead’ is also effective, but it comes after two of the album’s best tracks in this context. ‘Crazy Man Michael’ is a classic from the 1969 Liege and Lief album, featuring Thompson’s words and a tune by an inspired Dave Swarbrick. It is supreme English narrative folk music and has a depth and grown up quality that refuses to decay. And then we have ‘Guns are the Tongues’, from thirty-eight years later! Another narrative masterclass, with a gorgeous finger-picked line and ominous accompanying vocal. The two tracks together are a strong lesson in writing and playing and are highlights in an album that is brimming with them. One to treasure.
Pre-Order Acoustic Classics II – http://smarturl.it/dq5ug2
RICHARD THOMPSON TOUR DATES
Plus support Josienne Clarke + Ben Walker
Wed 11 October – Brighton Dome
Thu 12 October – Guildford G-Live
Fri 13 October – Poole Lighthouse
Sat 14 October – Bristol Colston Hall
Sun 15 October – Cardiff Wales Millennium Centre
Tue 17 October – Edinburgh Usher Hall
Wed 18 October – Gateshead Sage
Thu 19 October – Salford Lowry
Sat 21 October – Saffron Walden Saffron Hall
Sun 22 October – Coventry Warwick Arts Centre
Mon 23 October – London Cadogan Hall *Extra Date
Wed 25 October – Sheffield City Hall
Thu 26 October – Leicester de Montfort Hall
Fri 27 October – Basingstoke Anvil
Sat 28 October – Norwich Theatre Royal
Mon 30 October – London Bridge Theatre
Pre-Order Acoustic Classics II – http://smarturl.it/dq5ug2
Photo Credit: David Kaptein