Richard Thompson: Mock Tudor
by George Graham
(Capitol 98860 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/25/99)
Surely one of the most influential musicians to come out of the British pop scene of the 1960s is Richard Thompson. Not as well known as some of his slightly older compatriots such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Eric Clapton, Thompson nonetheless helped to shape a significant amount of music over the last 30 years. One of the most frequently heard descriptions of Thompson, a perennial critics' favorite, is that he is one of the "best kept secrets" or one of the artists "most deserving of wider recognition." But it ought to be apparent by now that Thompson's brand of thoughtful, often bittersweet songwriting and distinctive guitar work is not very compatible with the disposable music of the commercial scene. Thompson has just released his latest recording called Mock Tudor.
Richard Thompson was born in North London, and the English capital was very much a part of his musical and cultural upbringing. The son of a policeman, Thompson at an early age developed a reputation as a creative guitarist, and was reported to have jammed with Jimi Hendrix when the latter was just emerging during his period in London. At age 17 in 1966, Thompson founded Fairport Convention, the best-known of the English folk-rock bands, a group which still exists and with whom Thompson occasionally will put in a guest appearance. Equally fascinated by American and English folk music, Thompson and Fairport Convention, with the late Sandy Denny as vocalist helped to define a sound that was distinctive in a period when many British rock bands were getting into the blues.
Thompson left Fairport in 1971 and since then has been releasing a more or less continuous series of solo albums, almost all of which have won hosannahs from critics and found a ready audience among other musicians. Performers from Bonnie Raitt to the Pointer Sisters have covered Thompson's songs, and his guitar style has also been widely emulated, most notably by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, who credits Thompson as being a big influence.
Thompson has been living in Los Angeles for the past several years, but Mock Tudor, like its predecessor from 1997 Industry, is set in his home country. Industry, which was actually a joint album with the unrelated bassist Danny Thompson, was set in an industrial town and examined the way life had changed as the factories and mines closed. Mock Tudor is a reminiscence of Thompson's London. The album is divided into three parts, Metroland which he says covers the period of 1953 to 1968, Heroes in the Suburbs, 1969-1974, and Street Cries and Stage Whispers, comprising the last three songs and covering the past 25 years. The musical setting is rather rockier than Industry but more musically consistent than Thompson's quirky 1996 double album You? Me? Us? It was recorded in Los Angeles, though Thompson works with long-time British folk-rock co-horts, including Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson among others. Another person named Thompson, Teddy Thompson, is heard on guitar and backing vocals. For this CD, Thompson worked with two producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, known for their work with alternative rockers such as the Foo Fighters and Beck. The result is a more rock-oriented sound, sometimes to the detriment of the songs.
Though the album was written as a series of recollections of London, most of the songs eventually get around to personal relationships, and in typical Thompson fashion, love affairs in various states of disrepair or dysfunction. Fans of Thompson's brand of perceptive cynicism will find some new gems to consider. He also puts in a few more of his anguished electric guitar solos, but his guitar work is not as prominent on this CD as on his past work. This record has more of a band sound, and although Thompson's electric guitar is heard on all but the two mostly acoustic tracks, his solos are generally short and don't get that much of a chance to develop.
Mock Tudor commences with a song called Cooksferry Queen, from the Metroland set, written, according to Thompson, about the owner of a blues-oriented club, a kind of dapper mafiosi character, who undergoes a transformation into a hippie, thanks to a girlfriend. <<>>
Another interesting character is at the center of Bathsheba Smiles. She is apparently a performer, an exotic dancer perhaps, who attracts the hearts of many. <<>>
Two Faced Love is one of the rockier tracks, and deals with an attraction between seemingly incompatible people. <<>>
Thompson and the band crank it up for Hard on Me, with the kind of low-down lyrics that are a Thompson trademark. He also gets to play some appropriately bitter-sounding guitar, in this very good piece of writing which is given a bit too aggressive a musical setting. <<>>
From the middle-period set, Heroes in the Suburbs, is an equally sardonic song Crawl Back (Under My Stone), about getting out of someone else's life, apparently after being pushed. <<>>
Continuing in the somewhat bitter lyrical mode is Dry My Tears and Move On, an archetypical broken-love song. Interestingly, Thompson came up with something that sounds as if it could easily become a classic-style Memphis soul ballad. <<>>
Somewhat more musically upbeat is Walking the Long Miles Home which Thompson said was inspired by his staying out at music clubs in his youth until the last bus had already run. So it was a long walk home, though in his lyrics, he also weaves in the loss of a love. <<>>
From the final set of three songs, Sweet Cries and Stage Whispers, comes the acoustically-instrumented track Sights and Sounds of London Town, a series of vignettes about a few people attracted to the metropolis for various reasons, and living on the edge. <<>>
The album ends with perhaps the epitome of a Richard Thompson song, Hope You Like the New Me, lyrically intriguing and ironic, and musically lugubrious. Danny Thompson's doleful bowed bass adds to the generally dark mood. <<>>
Richard Thompson has been attracting the attention of critics, other artists and his devoted fans in a lengthy career that has seen him create many memorable songs and recordings. Most of his music takes a while to sink in, and there are many people who spent a lot of time analyzing Thompson's output. I'm not sure exactly where his new CD Mock Tudor will eventually stand in his career. There are some worthwhile songs, but he has done better. This is a concept album, but it's more a loose collection of songs based in a setting, rather than a continuing story, as was his last recording Industry released two years ago. The more rock-oriented production on this album sometimes enhances the songs, but just as often gets in their way, though the musicianship on the CD is quite good throughout.
Sonically, we'll give this CD about a C-plus. Although most of the instruments sound fairly good, there is way too much compression, which designed to make this album loud all the time. This is especially annoying on the acoustic tracks. Also except for those acoustic tracks, Thompson's vocal sounds thin, sonically flat, and with too much echo effect. Even his guitar sound can be disappointing in the way it was mixed. But at least it's better than the notoriously irritating sound of Mitchell Froom's production on Thompson's You? Me? Us?
Mock Tudor may not be Richard Thompson's best album, but it's full of great writing and it's not one that his many fans will like want to pass up.
(c) Copyright 1999 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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