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Richard Thompson

Dream Attic

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Shout! Factory

In September of 2009, CNN’s website published an interview with Richard Thompson under the headline “Richard Thompson, the greatest guitarist you’ve never heard of.” To anyone with the even faintest knowledge of music history, such a headline must have seemed purely absurd, the type of thing aimed entirely at the squares and those corporate desk jockeys who spend their lunch hour on CNN.com. But it’s been the easy music journalist’s tagline about Thompson for several decades, and I suppose nothing will change it at this point, even if it’s mostly bullshit. Though the musician usually only barely scratches the Billboard charts and has made commercial indifference something of an art form, no one can reasonably argue that he’s laboring in obscurity either. His shows sell out and his fan base isn’t going anywhere until they leave this mortal coil; we’re not talking about some starving artist scraping by on peanuts and playing to half-empty dives.

So even if Thompson’s latest, the mostly stellar Dream Attic, doesn’t make him a household name, that’s all right, as it again confirms his standing as one of music’s undisputed giants, equally on the level of a Dylan, Springsteen, Waits or Young. With such an extensive back catalog from which to compare, it’s too early to definitively say how Dream Attic stacks up against what preceded it, but it has all the characteristics of Thompson’s strongest and it’s likely years from now it will be considered as one of the musician’s most consistent releases. Almost all the major traits that have defined Thompson’s albums can be found scattered among its 13 songs. Thompson’s biting satirical wit can be found in both leadoff track “The Money Shuffle” and “Here Comes Geordie;” his ability to craft – to borrow his words – wrist-slashing ballads is displayed in “Among the Gorse, Among the Grey” and “Stumble On;” his catalog of murder/crime songs is nicely augmented with “Crimescene” and “Sidney Wells.” There are also, of course, deceptively buoyant and catchy songs about dysfunctional relationships and their attendant suspicions and paranoia, in this case “Big Sun Falling in the River.” Supported by an ace band that adds horns, strings, percussion and other instrumentation to Thompson’s masterful – a true understatement there – guitar work, other songs like “Haul Me Up,” “Bad Again” and “If Love Whispers Your Name” should stand up as some of the finest ensemble playing to be had on any Thompson record.

The album was recorded live during a brief West Coast tour in February, and like previous Thompson concert albums the sound and execution are both warmer and more immediate that much of Thompson’s studio output, which to me sometimes tend to feel coldly detached and overly produced. Though it’s strange that audience applause can be heard before and after only a few songs, Dream Attic unarguably benefits from being recorded live; it’s occasionally raw – Thompson’s voice cracks on a few tracks – but the musicianship and complete lack of studio embellishments capture what it’s like to see Thompson in concert.

Tom Waits has said that his wife jokes that he writes two kinds of songs: grand weepers and grim reapers. This statement could easily apply to Thompson as well – minus the Eyeball Kids and the man with missing fingers who plays a strange guitar – and throughout Dream Attic, it’s all too easy to overlook its lyrics among all the instrumental prowess both the band and Thompson exhibit. But there is pure lyrical artistry on this release, via the various barbed insults and plain-old sadness in Thompson’s writing, especially in something as achingly moving as “I’ve learned how long the night is when you’re gone” or as Cave-level macabre as “Then he took off her clothes and threw them in a pile/ He watched her stand there cold and shivering for a while/ Then he picked up her stocking lying on the floor/ And wrapped it round her neck until she breathed no more.”

The album loses some of its steam after that murder song, but overall it’s every bit as worthwhile as Thompson’s previous live albums. A handful of tracks here would also fit in well on any serious Best of Thompson compilation. If not quite a masterpiece, Dream Attic offers enough of Thompson’s alternately acerbic observations and droll humor and a crack band in peak form to make it required listening for both long-time Thompson fans, newbies and, yes, even the suit-and-tie crowd that get by on a steady diet of CNN.com

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