By Chelsea Spear
In the early 1990s, British folk music hero Richard Thompson found himself the subject of a surprise revival. While his instrumental and songwriting ability had remained at a consistently high level throughout his career, his signing to Capitol and subsequent MTV success (with “I Feel So Good,” which would later appear as Puck’s unofficial theme on The Real World: San Francisco) brought him a younger, more diverse audience.
Seen in hindsight, however, Thompson’s Mitchell Froom/Tchad Blake-produced efforts of the Clinton era are all but unlistenable with their clanking, high end-happy, avant-garde aspiring technique forcing Thompson’s songwriting and guitar-playing skills into a co-starring role.
In recent years, Thompson has parted ways with Capitol and sought a simpler sound. His previous albums (including the acclaimed Mock Tudor and Sweet Warrior) have had an engaging, intimate sound that better allows audiences to connect with Thompson’s skills and talents. His latest album Dream Attic takes the next logical step, catching him as he plays an album’s worth of new songs to a studio audience.
To some extent, the live-in-the-studio setup catches Thompson in his comfort zone. Even at his recording nadir—the ill-fated 1996 album you?me?us?—he was known for an ingratiating live show. Dream Attic features Thompson with members of his longtime backing band. Listening to this quintet is like hearing a jazz band that has outlasted most marriages get together to play; they know how to complement one another, but also how to stay out of each other’s way. As compared to the Froom days, the arrangements are spare and appropriate, and serve the songs well.
With the you-are-there production, one might hope that Thompson would branch out and experiment with new approaches. The album starts with “The Money Shuffle,” which lampoons the mindset of people like Bernie Madoff and other financial planners who royally screwed the stock market—a potent continuation of the social satire “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” from Sweet Warrior.
Much of the album, however, will please longtime Thompson fans, who will find much of it very familiar. If you liked Thompson’s portrayal of a ne’er do well on Rumor and Sigh‘s “Don’t Sit on My Jimmy Shands,” here’s the hummable “Here Comes Geordie.” Miss the intensity of Shoot Out the Lights? You may find something to like in the intense “Crimescene,” or the “Back Street Slide”-esque “Demons in Her Dancing Shoes.” If the lovelorn balladry of “Beeswing” or “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” is more your thing, check out “Stumble On,” which is a shade angrier than his two biggest hits.
If one can extend a complaint towards Dream Attic, it’s that the album is a little too respectable. At this late date, it might seem churlish to want to hear Thompson trying something new, when he’s been so artistically successful in his work as a journeyman guitarist and songwriter. The close similarities between this album and other, greater albums of his make this a less-than-ideal place for a newcomer to start, but old fans of Thompson who’d like to hear how he’s evolved in the past few years would do well to check this out.
Dream Attic was released on August 31 through Shout! Factory. Check out the album’s website for information on how to order a copy and digital download links.