Critic’s pick 265: Richard Thompson, ‘Electric’

The teaming of Brit folk/rock impresario Richard Thompson and Americana journeyman Buddy Miller on the former’s new album, Electric, is an alliance as obvious as it is overdue.

Since his days with the vanguard British troupe Fairport Convention, Thompson has forged  new songs and sounds inspired by the roots music of his homeland. In the process, he has become a guitarist and songwriter of great emotive sensitivity and severity. Miller has done pretty much the same thing on this these shores with vintage country music, although he is as visible today as a producer as he is a guitarist and composer.

That said, Electric should not be viewed as some kind of cross-continental summit or an encroachment of Thompson’s hearty British inspiration upon more domestic influences. In short, no one is not out to make a country record here.

What Miller provides are spacious yet concise sonic settings (all recorded in analogue, by the way) for Thompson’s songs. You can hear that at once in the album-opening Stony Ground as the percussive chatter of drummer Michael Jerome and an almost choral vocal moan gives way to the typically searing electric stride of Thompson’s guitar work.

Calling the record Electric might be somewhat beside the point, though. Sure, we get joyous torrents of Thompson’s wiry playing in solos that erupt out of the amplified folk dance Sally B, the modestly Americanized shimmer of Good Things Happen To Bad People and the album’s true wild card – a blast of surf-style groove called Straight and Narrow. But there are equally striking acoustic moments amid Electric’s amplified adventures. It is within those tales that the depth and detail of Thompson’s songwriting is best displayed.

Another Small Thing in Her Favor is the latest entry of Thompson’s rogues gallery of love-gone-wrong songs, depicting a sense of heartbreak that is quietly devastating and not in the least bit sentimental (“She’ll find some other poor pilgrim who’s braver”).

Electric’s two best acoustic reveries close the album. The Snow Goose is vintage Thompson: stark, poetic and disquieting (“Northern winds will cut you, northern girls will gut you; leave you cold and empty like a fish on the slab”). Mournful harmonies from Alison Krauss further heighten the song’s dark beauty.

But love offers salvation on Saving the Good Stuff for You. Accented by the violin of Nashville session great Stuart Duncan, the song is a waltz that tempers festering regret (“I’m glad that you never knew me when I was out of control”) with redemptive purpose (“I got it all out of my system; my heart, it is tested and true”).

In this instance, the music is all relaxed and unplugged. But the sentiments? They couldn’t be more electric.

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