Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Stroll on down electric avenue

With the Clan Mumford continuing their waistcoated march across the western world - like a band of marauding Pa Larkins armed with ukes and mandolins - the grand pappy of British folk-rock, Richard Thompson has stormed back this week with Electric, his 22nd album since leaving Fairport Convention.

I must confess, Thompson is one of those staples of British music I've managed to avoid. Not deliberately, mind, but light prejudice and shameful cliches involving beards, Aran sweaters and rural inflection may have been involved. Where I have lent folkwards, it has been in the direction of Nick Drake and, of course, my uber-hero, John Martyn, or towards the Appalachian charms of American roots.

For Thompson, however, Fairport Convention and all that early-70s hurdy-gurdy is a long way behind. Electric is a barnstorming affair, as it's title might suggest, dictated to by Thompson's Stratocaster mastery. It's a finger-picking virtuosity to rival Mark Knopfler, with whom Thompson shares a close musical affinity, stylistically, lyrically and tonally.

Recorded at the Nashville home studio of Robert Plant-collaborator Buddy Miller, Electric weaves in and out of Celtic-tinged rock, honky-tonk and bluegrass with a lyrical spectrum spanning the acerbic and the solemn.

To those familiar with Thompson's output in recent years, Electric may, simply, feel familiar. Like Knopfler, settling in to a sound and a groove. But that would be to unfairly suggest that Thompson turned up, plugged in and went home again.

Stony Ground kicks it off with ribald tale of an ageing lothario lusting after the widow across the street, essentially a bluesy jive about someone not that dissimilar to Open All Hours' Arkright ("Silly old man with his teeth all gone/Poking his nose where it don't belong/She's a rose all right but she's got thorns....").

The title of Salford Sunday provides the premise of a dreary tale about a dreary Sunday in a dreary Manchester suburb, but it's gently shuffling bluegrass (with Allison Krauss on backing vocals) is less another dour Northern tale as one of slight regret at leaving behind a particularly entertaining Saturday night, if you know what I mean.

While list compilers have largely focused on the Claptons, Gilmours and Becks in their compilations of great British guitarists, Thompson has probably never been given the recognition he deserves.

Perhaps its the folk association, but Stuck On The Treadmill provides a snappy showcase of just how gifted - and varied - a guitarist he is, applying a bluesy, bassy edge to opine the cause of the workin' man.

There is more familiar folkiness in The Snow Goose, another somewhat regretful, even mournful tale of a Northern lass, and in Saving The Good Stuff For You, which picks the tone up a notch with the help of fiddles and gee-tars.

Electric may not be the album to change your view of the world, but if you enjoy your Saturday night bar room entertainment guitar-flavoured, you won't be disappointed, from the tankard-swinging ballad Another Small Thing In Her Favour to the honky-tonk funk of Straight And Narrow.

Compared to, say, last year's Locked Down by Dr John, I'll admit that Electric hasn't turned me over in a sweating, heaving wreck of spooky roots blues; but it is pleasantly blessed in the manner that only American folk - as Plant and Krauss themselves demonstrated so admirably with Raising Sand - can do, providing a highly likeable soundtrack to either a night down the pub, or a cross-country trek across Appalachia.

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