richard-thompson-electric2[xrr rating=3.5/5]Richard Thompson is one of the most revered guitarists in rock—although a causal listen to any of his dozens of records will not necessarily demonstrate why. While most of his peers in ‘60s Britain were aping American blues guitarists, Thompson looked towards home, incorporating folky fingerpicking, elements of Celtic reels and jigs and the drone of the bagpipe chanter into his pithy, razor-sharp guitar playing. Self-effacing in the extreme, Thompson was never the sort to stretch out and wail like most other guitar heroes, content instead with brief eight or 16-bar solos of remarkable economy and precision—they’re over before you know it. Guitarists may gasp in amazement but the uninitiated may wonder what the big deal is, they glide by so effortlessly. In a live setting, Thompson might let loose on a few songs but mostly he exhibits a typically stoic British reserve—even though he’s lived in California for over a decade.

With his new album, the somewhat misleadingly titled Electric, Thompson steps up to the plate and lets it rip far more often than we’re used to on a studio recording. It’s not like he’s transformed himself into some sort of hippie noodler—he still confines himself to a chorus or two—but he might take several leads per song, allowing the intensity level to build, climaxing with astonishing barrages of bent strings and impossible double-stops. The rocking “Sally B” is a prime example: supported by a hard-hitting rhythm section comprised of his usual touring companions, bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome, Thompson unleashes a series of ear-burning solos, ending the song with a flurry of notes, bordering on the atonal and threaded with cross-rhythms. Every song contains at least one stunning example of Thompson’s guitar prowess, even on quiet acoustic numbers like “Another Small Thing In Her Favour” and the countrified confessional, “Saving The Best Stuff For You.” Despite the album’s title, it’s not all electronic sound and fury; still, the musicianship is beyond superb.

As a songwriter, Thompson crafts darkly humorous character studies exploring the underside of polite society: sexual obsession, working class despair, faithless lovers and other existential crises. On the opening track, “Stony Ground,” a song about a toothless old man lusting after the widow next door, Thompson shows he still has a way with words. After being beaten up by the widow’s sons (“two gorillas from the London Zoo”), Thompson describes the pathetic scene: “Dripping with blood, dripping with snot/ But he’s still dreaming of her you-know-what.” Thompson’s rich baritone has deepened and mellowed with age, his clipped, roguish accent giving these downbeat songs a sense of wizened grace and poignancy his younger voice could not match. “Good Things Happen To Bad People” is a bitter kiss-off but as he sings the line, “You cried when I walked you down the aisle/I can tell you’ve been bad by the way you smile,” you can feel the hurt within anger. Duets with Siobhan Maher Kennedy (“My Enemy”) and Alison Krauss (“The Snow Goose”) feature some of Thompson’s warmest melodies and most heartfelt singing on disc. Electric is a strong a collection of songs, with only “Where’s Home” failing to make much of an impression.

Thompson spent four days at producer/guitarist Buddy Miller’s home studio in Nashville recording Electric, finding comfort and inspiration in the relaxed, low-key environment. Some thirty songs were laid down before being whittled down to the final 11 tracks but an additional seven songs can be found on the “bonus” disc contained in the limited deluxe edition. While none of them are up to the standards found on album proper, there’s plenty of tasty guitar work to savor like the gritty twang of “Will You Dance, Charlie Boy” and the beautifully melodic fingerpicking on “The Rival.” But a couple of these tracks have appeared elsewhere and were not recorded at these sessions: the murderous tale of “Auldie Riggs” was originally released on Thompson’s “folkatorio,” Cabaret of Souls in 2012 and a live version of “So Ben Mi Ch’a Bon Tempo,” a song by the 16th Century Italian composer, Orazio Vecchi, was first heard on the limited bonus disc of The Old Kit Bag (2003) and later on 1000 Years of Popular Music (2003) and Live at the BBC (2011). As usual with these “bonus” discs, only the most devoted fan really needs it; otherwise, it’s a distraction.

As strong as the singing and songwriting is on Electric, it is Thompson’s impeccable guitar playing that makes the album worth hearing. While still maintaining his innately British sense of decorum and humility, Thompson pulls out all the stops, delivering some the most overtly virtuosic and deeply expressive guitar solos of his career. Now in his 60s, his “old head peppered with gray,” Thompson is just hitting his stride.

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