Fire Note Says: At 69, Richard Thompson, one of the world’s best songwriters as well as one or rock’s greatest guitarists, brings it altogether again on “13 Rivers,” one of the very best albums of his long and storied career.
Album Review: Who knew there would be a year when classic rock bands would be hitting the road to cash in on their 50th anniversary? Eric Clapton hit the road celebrating 50 years of music in 2017, Ian Anderson is flouting Jethro Tull back on the road this year, Wayne Kramer’s gathered same punk & hard rock all-stars to flesh out an MC50 tour, there are two version of Yes out playing while claiming rights to the name, and Aerosmith will launch a 50th Anniversary tour in 2019. Most of these bands are hitting the road promising their hits, most of which, with a few notable exceptions, came in the first decade or two of their careers. A number of artists have launched “farewell” tours, folk like Paul Simon and Elton John who are planning to leave the road for good, and while Bob Dylan at 77 continues his Never Ending Tour, his last few albums have been covers of Sinatra and the great American Songbook. So it would seem that Richard Thompson at 69 is an anomaly, releasing an album of new original material 50 years after the debut of the self-titled Fairport Convention, and he’s still writing and playing at the top of his form.
13 Rivers is Thompson’s 19th full-length studio album, which doesn’t include the five with Fairport that more or less launched a British folk rock movement rooted in an appreciation of traditional English and Celtic music, and 6 more with his ex-wife Linda, including “Shoot Out the Lights,” the break-up album to beat all break-up albums, which Rolling Stone magazine ranked in several “Best Albums” lists for good reason. Thompson’s last fully realized studio album was 2015’s Jeff Tweedy produced Still, a great collection of songs that touch many of the musical bases of Thompson’s long and storied career, including that great album closer, “Guitar Heroes,” where he pays tribute to the musicians who influenced his own remarkable playing style: Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton, and Hank Marvin of The Shadows.
While there’s little doubt that “Still” put all of Richard Thompson’s many musical strengths on display, on 13 Rivers we hear Thompson working at a deeper, more emotionally invested level. Beginning the record with “The Storm Won’t Come,” there’s a darker, more intense feel on top of the rhythm section playing a Bo Diddley beat, as Thompson sings of the sense of foreboding, or longing for a break in the weather that refuses to arrive. When he begins the guitar solo at 4 minutes in there’s an intensity in his playing, a fiery spirit that burns through most of the album, a fierce musicality in the bending of notes, in the melodic edge and the notes that bite like the wind.
Back in 2003, Thompson took a challenge from Playboy to name the best songs of the last 1000 years, and recorded a live album titled “1000 Years in Popular Music,” playing his own arrangements of English folk music, Italian dance , Baroque music by Purcell, American composers Stephen Foster and Hoagy Carmichael, and modern pop by The Beatles, Squeeze, Prince, and even Britney Spears’ “Oops… I Did It Again.” He may be an amateur musicologist, but Thompson brings that knowledge into his own work on 13 Rivers. While these are all new compositions they rise from one deeply familiar with classic folk traditions, the “Rattle Within” bristles with angst and energy, and songs that lean on the blues tradition, “Her Love Was Meant For Me” and “Dog In You,” bring a fresh attack and an urgency that comes through both Thompson’s lyrics, his vocal performance and more intensely in his guitar playing, where he shows no hesitation to shred like the Hendrix fan every guitar player hides deep inside, but this is not speed for the sake of speed, or flash for the sake of flash, there’s a deep emotional undertone throughout; Thompson is playing at a high skill level, but there’s heart and soul on each and every lick.
There’s a live in the studio feel throughout 13 Rivers, no doubt because Thompson produced the album himself, recording his fine band – Taras Prodaniuk on bass, Michael Jerome on drums, and second guitar player Bobby Eichorn – for ten brief days. The album was engineered by Clay Blair in the famous Boulevard Recording Studio, where albums like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and Steely Dan’s “Aja” were recorded, and from 1985 to 2010 the home of Westbeach Recorders and bands like NOFX, Bad Religion, Rancid and The Offspring.
Even on the quieter tracks, Thompson brings his compositional talents to the task, the finger-picked guitar strings and light cymbal taps ring out in “My Rock My Rope,” as the gentle, literate poetry unwinds the darker mood, but bright guitar solo floats on air. “Shaking the Gates” reverberates with that similar tonality, closing out the album with a somber hymn like quality. Anyone who’s had the pleasure of seeing Thompson live will know that while many of his songs speak of human tragedy and loss, but he has a wry, if dark, sense of humor as well, and there are a few nods to his somewhat infamous wit here too. “O Cinderella” offers the old fairytale with a unique twist, and Thompson intones that he “wants to make cupcakes” with the object of his desire. “You Can’t Reach It” is a bright pop rocker that plays against type, pitting his lyric about being “out in the cold” in an up-tempo melody that snaps and crackles. On “Tears” he sings about “curling up into a ball,” but includes a female chorus of backing vocals by Siobhan Kennedy, Judith Owen, and Zara Phillips, again playing against type, but then adds a guitar solo that flirts with stretching his broad sense of what notes are appropriate in the song’s given key to near the breaking point. It’s dark fun, yes, but it’s still fun.
In a world where quite a few albums feel like little more than three singles and a lot of filler, Richard Thompson has dug deep and created a full meal deal. As a recording artist, songwriter, lyricist, singer and guitar player he’s hitting on all cylinders, and performing at a very high level, this feels like a very personal statement, but one that rings true universally, like all great folk music – whether traditional, rock & roll, or even punk – it speaks of what is true to the human experience in a very satisfying and musical way.
Key Tracks: “Her Love Was Meant For Me” / “Bones of Gilead” / “You Can’t Reach It”
Artists With Similar Fire: Eric Clapton / Tom Waits / John Hiatt
Richard Thompson Website
Richard Thompson Facebook
New West Records
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb