Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Richard Thompson - You?Me?Us?

I had a long (for me) car journey yesterday, two and a quarter hours in the morning and two and a quarter hours back in the afternoon. For accompaniment, I brought with me the above Richard Thompson disc as well as an mp3 disc. Unfortunately, the car cd player wouldn't play the mp3 disc, so I listened to RT all the way.

Although this is nominally a double cd, both sides are quite short (about 37 minutes) and theoretically could have been put together on one disc. RT didn't do that, because the two discs are in different styles: the first, subtitled "voltage enhanced", features the electric guitar, whereas the second, "nude", features the acoustic. The contrast wouldn't provide for a good sequencing flow, although the closing track on the first disc, the lovely "The ghost of you walks", serves as a good bridge between the two styles.

I remember writing in 1996, which is when the disc was released, that the 'nude' disc was the album I had been waiting 15 years for, as it features several on top form RT songs. I wasn't so enamoured though with the electric disc and have played it infrequently over the years. Yesterday was a good chance to listen to it again.

What impressed me the most was that it's almost as if Richard was trying out different styles of songwriting. The 'nude' songs are conventional in their structure (although again, there are a few songs which sound like songwriting exercises, especially "Train don't leave"), but most of the 'voltage enhanced" songs have no counterpart in the RT canon. After thinking about it, I was able to narrow the differences down to a few stylistic changes in the music:
  1. Many of the songs have repeated lines: for example, the chorus of "Dark hand" has the line "There's a dark hand" repeated six times before the closing "over my heart" completes the sentence. "Business on you" again has several triplet repetitions of "I'm going to do the business on you" before the payoff line of "I've got all the magic I need". The repeated lyrics are set to the same melodic lines, so it's as if the song's progress gets stuck in a loop. Whilst "other" music features this quite often (think of the 12 bar blues as an early example, or the "three times and you're out" petite reprise on many Beatles songs), it's a rarity in RT's songs.
  2. The first few songs don't have conventional harmony, especially "She steers by lightning". Following this is "Dark hand", which too begins with a dynamic bass line over the same chord.
  3. There are songs which hold the I chord for a very long time - the verse of "Business on you" is a good example of this, as is "Am I wasting my love on you?".
  4. There is one explicit example of a slow burner 12/8 - "Bank vault in heaven".
The musical side of Richard Thompson's songs have always been off the beaten track. Whilst some may not have sophisticated harmonic progressions (I'm thinking of the lovely "Withered and died"), they have always featured chord progressions, and normally display a harmonic rate of change at about one chord per bar. There has always been a mix of 4/4 and 3/4 songs, but extremely few in 12/8.

The result of these experiments is that the songs are much more commercial (for want of a better word), more familiar to the ear of the common listener (who isn't aware of the 'guitar as bagpipes' sound of RT). The electric guitar and mandolin duet in "Business on you" probably sounds fresh, exciting and exotic to those ears, whereas to the cognoscenti it sounds like a rehash (albeit a brilliant one) of "When I get to the border".

Interestingly, the two songs which feature on both discs, "Razor dance" and "Hide it away", feature none of the characteristics which I have noted. "Razor dance" is quintessential RT; the acoustic version sounds like a demo for the electric version. "Hide it away" is slightly off the beaten RT track, although its roots can be found in a few songs on the preceding "Mirror Blue" album. Again, I think that the electric version is better than the acoustic, although this time they are arranged differently: the electric version sounds like a Burt Bacharach smoocher (is that electric piano or electric guitar providing the chordal accompaniment?), whereas the acoustic version is rougher and features a double bass solo.

The lyrics are interesting and inventive throughout both discs and have no relation to the musical experiments to which they are set. As a result, the lyrics of "Business on you" or "Am I wasting my love?" are far better than their music, a rare occurrence in an RT song, where music and lyrics are normally at a high and equal level.

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