Richard Thompson's brilliant Dream Attic

22:00, Aug 01 2011

I've been a Richard Thompson fan for a while. At first he was someone I read about, and I knew he was revered; I trialled some of his material but struggled to find much that actually matched up with the raves. But in recent years I've found the good oil - and there's plenty. You can take those bittersweet albums that he and then-wife Linda Thompson created or you can look through his solo material. It's an embarrassment of riches either way.

If anything, and some of you will want to shake your head in disagreement here (or just shrug your shoulders in nonchalance/stare straight ahead in vague-apathy). Thompson is getting better with every album. His handful of albums across this decade have all been strong, from 2003's Old Kit Bag to 2005's Front Parlour Ballads; I loved his soundtrack to the Grizzly Man documentary (also from 2005) and of course his live acoustic showcase: 1000 Years of Popular Song (2006). Then there was 2007's Sweet Warrior - he doesn't always translate well from the studio but Front Parlour and Sweet Warrior really delivered.

The sharp songs, that extraordinary guitar playing - that voice (I guess that's a love or hate/make or break quality right there) are all in fine form.

So I'd been pretty keen to buy the most recent album, last year's Dream Attic, on brand-spanking new vinyl. I wasn't even going to listen to it before purchasing. I was sure it would be superb.

But for some reason I would pass it by on my weekly visits to the store. It is expensive. But, as I said here, I felt this was a cost I could justify. I didn't though; there must have been some reservation/s.

Well, a couple of weeks ago I was on a flight to Sydney and when the movie finished (I finally got around to seeing Wall-E and could see why people loved it - and why, in particular, so many preferred part/s of it rather than the whole thing) I decided I'd try the plane's version of an iPod; I'd find an album on the in-flight entertainment system that I had not heard. It was a nice surprise to find Dream Attic there and with about an hour of the flight remaining I rested my eyes and took in Thompson's album. I didn't know anything about it - just that it was a new album; a bunch of new songs.

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It was extraordinary. I was hooked from the start. The opener, The Money Shuffle, shows the sardonic wit, the song's narrator suggesting he'll be great looking after other people's finances because he "loves kittens and little  babies/Can't you see that's the guy I am/Your money is so safe with me".

Thompson's wordplay is savage and you can tell he relishes the satirical absurdity of lines like "If you'll just bend over a little/I think you'll feel my financial muscle/ Spread it wide, wide as you can/To get the full benefit of my plan".

So we were off to a good start; the album sounded good - I was happy.

And it just got better and better.

Brilliant songs, stunning performances - his asymmetrical guitar lines, that coiled viper - it was tour-de-force, virtuoso stuff. All the usual things you expect from an artist who has lived with and (I assume) learned to embrace the backhanded compliment that is to be forever "critically acclaimed" (i.e. low sales, no hits).

There are more lyrically savage songs. Here Comes Geordie has a guy using his private plane to fly everywhere to save the world (the man born Gordon Sumner should probably be concerned). And both Crimescene and Sidney Wells see lurid murder tales revealed.

But the thing that got me, listening to it blind as it were - nothing but the tracklisting - was the stunning performances. And then I started to hear some audience applause (only on some tracks, admittedly) and so I figured this was some sort of patchwork album, taking tracks from here and there.

After that one listen on board the plane, I found out that Richard Thompson had taken a new set of songs (brand new songs last year) out on the road. He performed shows and recorded them. Fans were treated to 13 new songs - versions of them were caught for the album, taken from one of seven different shows - and the audiences on the night also got to hear a set of fan-favourites after (they were not recorded; well, not for Dream Attic at any rate).

I like this concept - live versions of brand new songs - but it only works because of the execution. And it makes sense.

My early reservation about Thompson's work - which I only hinted at when I mentioned trialling some of his work and it not gelling to begin with - is that I couldn't find much evidence of his fiery guitar work on some of the studio albums. It's there, I know this now and having listened across his catalogue I know where to look - but it's abundant across his live albums.

And given that Thompson has learnt to work within the parameters of his cult status - something that is probably artistically freeing and certainly allows him to flit from soundtrack to solo acoustic to full band and cameo appearances - the live album is a great medium for him. He's been releasing fan-club live albums and bootleg-style offerings for a while and with Dream Attic he just decided to deliver a new set of songs as a live album.

The songs are great and the band hums but Thompson's guitar playing is stunning. His solos are beautifully unpredictable - so much so that even on repeat listens you're caught standing still, wondering where the guitar will end its journey, often having started in the middle. It snakes and winds and coils and darts and flits - and sure, plenty of people know that Thompson is regarded as a great player, an undersung guitar-hero, but I have to reiterate: the playing here is remarkable. It's some of his absolute best. I'm sure of that.

I could imagine someone buying Dream Attic just for the guitar solos. (They wouldn't even have to be a guitarist.)

I returned from my trip and bought the album on iTunes - that LP version I coveted had been sold to another buyer (I've ordered a copy). The deluxe version on iTunes features a second disc, the same songs presented as stripped back, solo acoustic renditions. For the Richard Thompson fan who prefers the sound of, say, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning to his mercurial electric sound.

You can still hear a hint of something that Mark Knopfler snapped up in Thompson's playing here - you can hear him playing what other people could only hope to channel via effects and delays and echoes and "backwards" recording tricks. And it all just flows from his fingers, across the frets - it feels/seems effortless.

That's because this is the work from a consummate player, a guitarist whose ideas don't come from generic blues-derived (barely evolved) pub-rock hackery. This is a player constantly searching for ways to express the ever-evolving ideas in his head; sending music out to be framed forever, an expression of a moment, stunning improvisation that picks and chooses from folk and jazz idioms.

Thompson is one of few players who is as good across acoustic as he is electric; someone who has developed a unique approach and sound distinct for each type of instrument. And he's one of even fewer players who are still so actively on the search for new ways to convey what they hear in their head. I think of Jeff Beck as another obvious example.

If you listen to nothing else from or about Dream Attic, then at least click here to check out the album's finale, If Love Whispers Your Name - it's worth it for the guitar solo.

I hope some of you have heard Dream Attic already? And I hope others make an effort to hear it. The album is amazing - I'm looking forward to the $50 vinyl arriving even though I already have the album on my iPod. It's a record I plan to get lost inside for many years to come. It's the best new thing I've heard in a long time. And it might be the best Richard Thompson album I've ever heard. I'd love to know what other Richard Thompson fans think of it.

Are you a Richard Thompson fan? Will you have a go at Dream Attic anyway? Did you have a listen to any of the links above? And if so what did you think? And what do you think of the idea of a brand new live album - warts and all, no overdubs - as a way to feature new songs? I think it's all class and it shows a talented player still taking risks; a consummate musician still working hard to please both himself and his audience. I'm happy to have discovered Dream Attic - and it's fascinating to alternate between the acoustic and electric versions of the same songs; they are two completely different listening experiences.

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Postscript: Here's a couple of the songs performed live as solo acoustic pieces.