brent johnson digs up a trio of lost treasures from Richard & Linda Thompson …
Some musicians wow us with winding guitar solos, eerie atmospherics, strange sounds or wacky costumes.
But what’s truly difficult is to dazzle with nothing but a simple acoustic folk song.
Richard & Linda Thompson apparently had a knack for it.
In last week’s column, I wrote about how I was suddenly inspired to seek out the music of Loudon Wainwright III — a musician I’d always heard wonderful things about but never truly listened to. What I finally heard from Mr. Wainwright floored me. So I felt compelled to turn to another reportedly brilliant act I’d heard little of: the Thompsons.
Richard Thompson made his name as the nimble and inventive guitarist of Fairport Convention, Britain’s leading folk-rock group of the late 1960s. He left the band in 1971 and soon began recording with his wife, Linda. Critics loved them from the start, heaping praise on their 1974 debut, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight.
They had a reason to fawn. I poured through the album this week and discovered two things: 1. Linda Thompson is the kind of singer that’s hard to find in pop these days: plaintive but graceful and crystalline. And 2. In addition to being a fine guitarist, Richard is a rare songwriter that can pen simple, catchy tunes that also happen to be weighty and clever.
Hence, I give you three tracks from the album. ‘Withered And Died’ sounds like a rudimentary folk song, with strummed chords and lamenting lyrics. But try not to be charmed by its immediately hummable melody and Linda’s lilting voice. Sadness never sounded so gorgeous.
‘End Of The Rainbow’ is all the more affecting. Behind the pretty music is a menacing idea: that you should accept a life of squalor and sadness because there’s nothing better waiting for you. Subtly chilling.
The album’s title track is more uplifting. It could be a folk song — were it not for the bluesy guitar groove and grin-inducing Mariachi horns. This should have been a hit.
The Thompsons went on to make a string of lauded albums throughout the ’70s. But their time as a duo halted in the early ’80s when Richard left Linda for his tour manager. They did release one more album: 1982’s Shoot Out The Lights, which I’ve read is one of the greatest divorce albums ever recorded.
It’s the next thing on my list to discover.