critic’s pick 139

Within the smoldering verses of Sidney Wells, a deliciously lurid tune from his new Dream Attic album, Richard Thompson outlines the killing spree of “a heartless kind of rake,” an unrepentant fiend who charms his female prey right up until he is put behind bars. “All you see is victims,” Wells tells police upon his capture. “All I see is brides.”

Ah, another Thompson album full of love, corruption, remorse and murder. As is the case with the master songsmith and guitarist’s best music, such songs are ripe with human detail that runs from the poetic to the unapologetically grimy. But that is only half the fun.

What really lights the fuse under Sidney Wells is the pure electricity Thompson conjures with his band. Hearing the spitfire solos he summons on electric guitar counter the furious violin breaks of Joel Zifkin hints at his folk-rock exchanges with fiddler Dave Swarbrick four decades ago in Fairport Convention. But Dream Attic is no nostalgia ride. It borrows liberally from British folk inspirations that have always been at the heart of Thompson’s songs. But with such seasoned American pros as drummer Michael Jerome at his side, Dream Attic is also a purposely contemporary beast.

Sure, Among the Gorse, Among the Grey sounds like a centuries-old folk lament. But it soon bleeds into the fully electric gospel furor of Haul Me Up. Also, the dandy who struts about to the Celtic turns of Here Comes Geordie harkens back to a folkie past until the title character’s theatrical conceit becomes altogether contemporary (“Stiff as cardboard, isn’t it a drag? Can’t act his way out of a paper bag”).

What separates Dream Attic from preceding Thompson albums, though, is its design. This is a concert album cut from a series of West Coast performances given last winter. But it’s a live recording of all new material. As such, these 13 tunes reveal an appealing musical looseness. That provides Thompson ample room to go wild on guitar. Sidney Wells and Haul Me Up are centerpiece works for his jackhammering solos. But nowhere is the electric drive of his playing a more fitting foil for his brittle storylines than at the album’s conclusion.

For the closing When Love Whispers Your Name, Thompson forges a confession of pure romantic regret. The title suggests something more hopeful. But the lyrics burn with remorse. “Next time, I promise, I will be ready,” Thompson sings in somber, meditative reflection. “Ready to move when the clouds roll apart. Next time, I promise I’ll do it better.”

Such is the trick of rummaging through dark thoughts long left dormant in the attic. Stir them up and there is no telling what kinds of monsters will roar back to life.

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