Richard Thompson - Acoustic Rarities

by Kevin Orton Rating:9 Release Date:2017-10-06
Richard Thompson - Acoustic Rarities
Richard Thompson - Acoustic Rarities

Richard Thompson always looked more like your high school history teacher than a rock star. In terms of a guitarist, what he lacked in Jimi or Keef’s flashy gypsy attire, he more than made up for with versatility and prowess. Despite his strong English Folk roots, Thompson has never quite fit in with any genre. Yet, has always remained a playfully subversive presence. So what if Thompson’s never been one of the cool kids? He’s always been whip smart and talented as hell. “What if I’m cool and you’re deluded?” He snarls on the opening cut of his latest. “What if you’re a fat man in a thong?” Suffice it to say, time has not dulled Thompson’s wit. Nor has he lost his propensity for doom, gloom and vitriol.

Now be thankful.

While loneliness has long been a theme in popular music, aging is something that tends to get swept under the rug. ‘They Tore the Hippodrome Down’, but life goes on, like a rainy day in a Beckett novel. Here, remembrances of more freewheeling, wide-eyed days give way to an endless parade of doctor’s appointments and widower’s ennui.  If Thompson doesn’t paint pretty pictures, they steadfastly endure with warts and all humanity. Speaking of pictures that aren't pretty, God help any stranger who crosses paths with, ‘Seven Brothers’. Lyrically, a dark gleam in the witch’s eye. In terms of playful menace, many of these songs could almost be an Edward Gorey illustration come to musical life. Proof these songs need no instrumentation other than Thompson’s deft fingers on his Lowden.

I confess, I've become a bit of a Thompson obscurest over the years. This may be partially due to shelling out for the box set of rarities, The Life And Music of Richard Thompson. And yet, I have never heard, ‘Rainbow Over The Hill’. If it sounds like an early composition, it is. A thing of rare beauty. Truly, the one that got away. If it weren’t so obscure, it would be a classic. Thompson at his finest and most uncharacteristically optimistic. It was originally intended for the Albion Band's 1978 Rise Up The Sun album but never made it on the LP. It sounds quite at home here.

‘Never Again’ is not a rare Thompson song. It figured prominently on 1975’s Hokey Pokey. What's rare, is a recorded version of Thompson actually singing it. It’s a deeply personal song about devastating loss. Written in the aftermath of Fairport Convention’s 1969 van crash (which killed Thompson’s girlfriend and drummer, Martin Lamble), it’s not the kind of thing you'd normally shout out for in concert. But Thompson’s never shied away from going to dark places. A song that has even more power, now that Thompson is nearer the age of its protagonist. 

 ‘I Must Have A March’ sounds as if it belongs to some unfinished, demented musical. Like the song’s vain, demanding has-been of a star, it’s a tough number to curl up with. The only comfort is our conflicted narrator who alternatively chews on resentment and adoration. As character studies go, Thompson has the uncanny ability to capture complexity and humanity with all the skill of a seasoned novelist. The bleak dissonance of ‘I’ll Have To Take My Sorrows To The Sea’ follows. A narrative that only serves to benefit from the sparseness. Haunting as any Emily Bronte novel, it’s an unrepentant Gothic tale of heartbreak and suicide.

Thompson’s 1972 debut flop of a solo album, Henry, The Human Fly, has the nagging habit of going in and out of print. So, I suppose, ‘Poor Ditching Boy’ could be considered a rarity of sorts. Regardless, its been a longtime favorite of mine. Its inclusion is certainly no cause for complaint.  ‘Alexander Graham Bell’ however, is much more of a genuine rarity. A catchy and informative one. Who knew Bell laid the groundwork for television? Here, Thompson channels Django Rinehart with gleeful aplomb. As far as I know, its only release has been a live version on, The Life and Music of Richard Thompson.

‘Sloth’ is far from a rarity. It’s a bona fide classic from Thompson's Fairport, Full House days. But lone, acoustic versions like this are hard to come by. The original and subsequent live excursions feature long instrumental breaks. Not a bad thing when it comes to a guitarist of Thompson’s caliber. However, this concise rendition is a far less demanding listen. While no obscurity per se, this take on it, is certainly rare. I think it’s the finest version he’s ever recorded.

 ‘Push and Shove’ is as upbeat as Thompson gets. A thinking man’s Pop tune. But I confess, it’s inclusion is a bit of a letdown. I’ve heard it before on the bootleg, Straws In The Wind and the Life & Music box set. I confess, it’s not a song I get particularly enthused about. Personally, I would have much preferred a rara avis like, ‘In Over My Head’, or ‘Dragging the River’. In addition, ‘End of the Rainbow’ is far from rare. Its another classic from, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. While it never fails to send a chill, something more recherché would have been welcome. I suppose more of a case could be made for the inclusion of ‘Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman’. The original, Full House version marked Thompson’s lead vocal debut. Truth is, he’s never sounded particularly self-assured on it. Here, he’s finally laid down a commanding performance of this twisted delight. Gallows humor and horror hold hands on the scaffold in this tale of a young man being unjustly strung up. Vintage Thompson sarcasm with the line, “This show is the best in the land, here’s a health to the jolly hangman.”

The collection ends with, ‘She Played Right Into My Hands’. Another unreleased gem on a complete treasure box of an album. Clearly, Acoustic Rarities was meant to compliment Acoustic Classics volumes 1 & 2. And while there is much to commend them, they’re both a touch redundant for the hardcore fan. Acoustic Rarities not only sweetens the deal but gives devoted fans what they’ve always yearned for. Here’s to a volume 2. Or 3.

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