Richard Thompson: Still (Proper Records)

Hero of the British 60’s folk revival teams up with Wilco front man for his 22nd studio outing

Released Jun 29th, 2015 via Proper / By Henry Bainbridge
Richard Thompson: Still (Proper Records) This latest release by the legendary British guitarist/wordsmith finds Richard Thompson in Wilco’s custom-built rehearsal and recording studio hidden within an innocuous office block in northwest Chicago. Wilco front man, Jeff Tweedy is producing the record and members of both Wilco and Thompson’s touring bands have been commandeered to back the sessions that assumedly were propositioned while both bands served on Bob Dylan’s 2013 ‘ AmericanaramA – Festival of Music’ tour.

Over the last few years Tweedy has branched out from his role as a songwriter/instrumentalist in a number of Americana projects (See; Wilco, Golden Smog, Loose Fur, Tweedy…) and has recently produced cracking records for Mavis Staples, White Denim and Low.

Considering Thompson’s predilection for extended instrumental sections and unusual accompaniment and that Wilco are hardly shy to decorate catchy tunes with ambitious soundscapes it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the record sounds an awful lot like an awful lot of Thompson’s more-gentle solo output. Which isn't, in principle, a problem; he is very often very, very good. But… the cloud of missed opportunity is hard to shake off on first listens.

However it would be cheap to conflate assumption with the actual product. This is a heck of an engaging record that wrestles carefully with an overarching sense of frustration and resignation at the state of the world on one level and at his personal relationships on another.

That Thompson is still writing songs that would slide splendidly into his 80-90’s ‘heyday’ solo albums of Rumour and Sigh and Amnesia is exciting. This would be the time to say that now, well into his 60’s, he’s older and wiser. But that would be silly. He has always had a sense of worldly patience and a way to pick apart the things that go wrong in life without wading into self-pity. Instead what we continue to get are pieces that steadily unfold narratives of the great British folk tradition; betrayal, futility and jealousy (a particular RT favourite).

As pub debates go, there is an awful lot of legs in identifying musicians who manage to master their instruments whilst also knocking out top grade songs. It is not a long list, and no, Prince is not on it. Thompson writes heartbreakers and soul-barers as well as anyone, the kicker is that he plays guitar unlike anybody; bell tones and jazz warmth, the drone of Scottish pipers and the flittering howl of delta blues. Often open-tuned and modal; his style acknowledges folk tradition without deference; it is not unusual to find him boldly melding eras, with renaissance instrument riffs, synth pads, crisp acoustic guitars, double basses, and dulcimers finding space within a single album.

This is not a record of quite such extensive workouts though; it is a little more restrained and also less awkward for it. I mean, I salute the ambition of the crumhorn solo in 74’s ‘When I Get to The Border’ but there is a reason that instrument found itself consigned to the history books (and bearded ‘Early Music Group’ types. It stinks up any tune with a skunky stench of God-fearing serfs and bloated lords. It is an instrument of zero tact and sensitivity. And that doesn’t gel with Thompson’s work here; this is a such a considered album, with tunes such as Beatnik Walking, Where’s Your Heart, and No Peace, No End showing a mastery of channeling anger and disillusionment into something beautiful. No one ever did that on a crumhorn.