Album Review: Richard Thompson’s “Electric”

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Ever since his days with seminal folk-rockers Fairport Convention, I've always looked forward to a new Richard Thompson album.

In his four-and-a-half decade-long career, Thompson has never rested on his laurels. He continues to be as vibrant and productive as ever.

Recently he was awarded for his efforts, earning the American Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award and an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen. He also received the Order of the British Empire from the Queen for his musical contributions. 

Many musicians in their 60s (Thompson is 63) either retire, produce half-baked material or simply cash in on the songbook from their long-gone glory days. 

Like Neil Young, Dr. John, Bruce Springsteen or Bonnie Raitt, Thompson's output continues to stand comfortably alongside the hundreds of songs in his catalog, and most importantly, he continues to look forward and take chances.

Although no song on his new release, Electric, will bump the likes of "Beeswing," "I Misunderstood," "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" or "Wall of Death" off the all-time top 10 Thompson tune list, the album does offer up a program of solid, finely crafted and expertly played songs.

Not everything on Electric is electric, but for those who admire Thompson as one of the higher deities in the pantheon of electric guitar greats, there should be no disappointment here.

From the first scorching notes on the opening track, "Stony Ground," Thompson's unique approach and tone is instantly recognizable, often sounding more like a bagpipe than a guitar. The song may not be the best cut on the album, but the solo that Thompson launches into at the end is positively incendiary.

There are several of those moments on Electric that fans will relish. No one plays or sounds like RT. No one even attempts to emulate what may be the most original guitar style in all of folk and rock. He has rightly earned his spot on Rolling Stone's Best Guitarists of All Time list.

Thompson's singing voice is better than ever while delivering up the sardonic, clever, sly and sometimes dark lyrics we have come to expect in his songwriting. All sides of RT are evident on this eclectic release, from the blistering guitar licks to the fingerpicked acoustic ballads. 

The sessions were recorded at Buddy Miller's studio in Nashville, with several of that town's luminaries contributing to the project.

"Saving the Good Stuff for You" is a lovely folk song that features the finest fiddler in Music City, Stuart Duncan. Alison Krauss, who sang Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" on her album Paper Airplane, adds her breathy vocalization to the penultimate track, "Snow Goose." 

Besides some beautiful singing from Siobhan Maher Kennedy and an occasional guitar part by Miller (who produced the album and just happens to be a stellar guitarist in his own right), Electric is basically performed by the trio of Thompson, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome.

Miller recorded the trio in a short four-day period, giving the project a live, raw feel. Thompson has stated that he was going for a somewhat garage-band approach. His previous release of original material, Dream Attic, was recorded in concert in front of an audience to capture the spontaneity and energy that only a live performance can offer.

Last year, on the 25th anniversary broadcast of NPR's Fresh Air, host Terry Gross chose a solo performance by Richard Thompson as one of the program's finest musical moments. She remarked that, despite the hour of the early morning recording session, Thompson nailed it. 

Obviously, Thompson is at his best in an environment where the goods need to be delivered up on the spot with a sense of urgency. Sometimes this approach favors energy over precision, but it doesn't seem to compromise his virtuosity in the least. 

As evidenced on this latest recording, Richard Thompson continues to be at the top of his game as a singer, songwriter and guitarist.

Electric is also available in a deluxe two-CD edition that includes seven additional bonus tracks.