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Richard Thompson Richard Thompson
Album: Acoustic Rarities
Label: Beeswing
Tracks: 14
Website: http://www.richardthompson-music.com

Hot on the heels of Richard’s latest release Acoustic Classics II comes its intended companion, a whole disc of what’s described as Acoustic Rarities. Its 14 tracks are for the most part probably better described as Acoustic Comparative Obscurities, given that RT’s catalogue inevitably contains its share of dusty corners. But in the end, the AR tag’s probably a fair enough assessment in that nearly half of the new disc’s tracks are songs that I’d say qualify as hitherto unreleased (although in one or two cases it’s likely that some hardcore Thompson devotees will have had access to bootleg recordings at some point).

Kicking the whole collection off slightly unpromisingly, though, is What If, one of those sardonic Thompson put-down numbers that doesn’t exactly court favour or indeed likeability (and it also contains some untypical and rather obtrusive overdubbed backing vocals). But thereafter I experience no such reservations about the quality or accessibility of the newly-aired material. They Tore The Hippodrome Down seems cut from the same cloth as Al Bowlly’s In Heaven, and will surely in time achieve that song’s stature and high reputation; I understand that it received its first public airing at this year’s Cropredy Festival… I’ll Take All My Sorrows To The Sea is a standout song here, a desperate and unsettling 2½-minute piece which was completely new to me, but I’m told was part of a really obscure song-cycle written around five years ago (now that I’d love to hear!). Push And Shove, a classic rocker in the Buddy Holly/Bo Diddley mode, fully deserves a recording now (I recall hearing it just the once before, around the time of Rumour And Sigh, but inexplicably never since). All three of these just mentioned receive fantastic, masterly performances both guitar- and vocal-wise that may well come to count among RT’s finest. Not that the lilting, attractive (if a little tentative) waltzer She Played Right Into My Hands suffers in any way from its execution. Or that the remaining “so far unheard” (at least by me) track, I Must Have A March, fares any less well in the performance stakes either. It’s something of a curiosity, being rather in the idiom of a lost Kurt Weill cabaret number, and includes some subtle accordion fills and more overdubbed backing vocals. Sadly, the bare-sleeve promo disc and unfairly skimpy press release gives no detail as to date of composition of this song (or for that matter any of the others), which is both really unfortunate and incredibly unhelpful. Note that RT’s website has no information either…

Back to the tracklist, and a touch more familiar, although still in the “rarity” category, is the fun biog piece Alexander Graham Bell, which I remember from several RT live gigs over the years; it’s one of those brilliant jazzy swingy novelty numbers that’s riddled with scintillating wordplay and has surely “got rhythm” in abundance.

A small number of the songs on Acoustic Rarities are known for being covered by other artists, and it’s good to hear “his master’s voice” reinterpreting them. In particular, the decidedly downbeat folk-ballad-inspired Seven Brothers (familiar to me from the recording by Blair Dunlop that graced his debut album back in 2012), which becomes a highlight of this new RT collection. It forms a distinct contrast to the by-comparison almost cheery Rainbow Over The Hill, written for the Albion Band’s 1978 Rise Up Like The Sun sessions.

Some of the Acoustic Rarities can be so described in the sense of “music that hasn’t really been heard in this context” (as Richard himself puts it), in other words that they’re better known for being performed in electrified (or band) settings rather than as stripped-down acoustic incarnations. That’s certainly the case with Sloth, the Full House classic which has regularly appeared in Fairport sets, invariably as a vehicle for an extended instrumental workout. It richly deserves much more acclaim for its powerful lyric, and here this is almost effortlessly achieved by RT with the altogether sparser setting of just two acoustic guitars and some harmonies, and he somehow manages to say it all in a mere 5½ minutes! Also revisited for Acoustic Rarities is another song from the same album (well, the sessions for it), Poor Will And The Jolly Hangman, which still possesses the power to disturb even without that original blinding electric guitar solo; this new recording also features a mandolin part alongside the acoustic guitar. There’s also a prominent, and busy, mandolin tripping along on another of this new offering’s “not exactly rarities”, The Poor Ditching Boy (from Henry The Human Fly), where I can also hear an accordion; this fresh reading is especially fine, confident and satisfyingly arranged. Finally (although arguably I’m splitting hairs!), I wouldn’t really consider the remaining two tracks on Acoustic Rarities (Never Again – from Hokey Pokey – and the equally bleak End Of The Rainbow from Bright Lights Tonight) as true rarities, but it’s still good to hear RT’s latest takes on these songs.

Acoustic Rarities is a genuinely interesting and mostly very rewarding set. It must be considered an essential collection, and not exclusively so for the existing RT fan or the already-converted. Pity about the presentation though.

David Kidman