Richard Thompson
Album: Electric
Label: Proper
Tracks: 18

Yes, in the scheme of things this new Thompson studio album falls into the Electric category - but as always with RT, that's never quite the whole story. Coming out in good preview time for Richard's major 30-date UK tour (starting 20th February), and produced by Buddy Miller in Nashville, it features his core touring power-trio that basically retains bassist Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome from the band that backed him on the recording of 2010's Dream Attic album. These guys mean business - and then some!…

The record crashes straight in, lunges at our consciousness with a raw, garagey feel and a seriously heavy-duty thundering beat, Stony Ground providing a significant addition to RT's gallery of sleazy characters in Old Man Morris, who's shoved right in our face and almost doing the Back Street Slide to the staccato rhythm of a tear-stained letter and a series of archetypally breathtaking axe-winder solos. The ensuing memorable and evocative Salford Sunday could by comparison pass for almost lyrical, impressionistic Brit-pop of a particularly classy kind, whereas Sally B adds a further portrait to that rogues' gallery, its solid growling bass parallel-shadowing the lead guitar line in a chunky, funky rhythm. Then comes a new entry in RT's canon of "industry" songs, Stuck On The Treadmill, a numbingly desperate funk-rock juggernaut beast of a track with a strong Led-Zepp (Physical Graffiti) feel (a sly reference to the fact that Buddy's recently produced for Robert Plant, maybe?) and some absolute killer guitar work including another of those gritty, gutsy, intuitively twining and logically meandering solos with bitter and twisted progressions that've become RT's distinctive trademark and stun and surprise over and again however familiar they might've become over repeated plays.

After that monster rampage of a track, textures lighten rather for the majority of the remainder of the disc, starting with My Enemy, which gloomily probes into the extremes of love and hate, and burns into your brain with its plaintive and doomy folky melody that shoots off in a somewhat unheralded direction, boosted by some understated but effective harmonies from guest vocalist Siobhan Maher Kennedy (who also appears on five more tracks). A deeply Duane Eddy-twangsome riff pervades Good Things Happen To Bad People, an almost gleefully catchy relationship ditty with a totally classic pop-song structure, then the album seems to coast just a little with the more relaxed country-rock of Where's Home?, one of several tracks to prominently feature the ace fiddle playing of guest Stuart Duncan (his Nashville compadre, bassist Dennis Crouch, also guests on a few tracks by the way, as does producer Buddy, of course…).

Another Small Thing In Her Favour, though folksy and quite tender in its own way, is another classic RT end-of-relationship departure song with a distinct bite to its almost wistful sentiment, and is followed by the Farfisa-soaked fairground-pop vibe of Straight And Narrow that might well've come straight off the wall of death to haunt you down the years. This interlude over, it's back to business with the simply-scored acoustica of Snow Goose, which with its "She is like a snow goose, Pale and rare and footloose" lyric may not exactly be the Beeswing it kinda seems to emulate, but is an affecting, if quite morose little creation, incidentally sporting a gorgeous (though not excessively sweet) and inventively-harmonised backing vocal from guest Alison Krauss. After which, the album closes with Saving The Good Stuff For You, an uncharacteristic (for RT) kind of number, one of those yearningly regretful country waltzers with keening fiddle, where you're sat right there on that barstool seein' in the dawn.

But that's not all - for lucky early purchasers can wallow in a second (bonus) disc which delivers a sizeable 25-minute appendix to the main menu's 50-minuter. It contains a total of seven tracks, the first four of which it would appear were recorded at the main album sessions. These don't quite carry on where the first disc left off, but they take us (with Stuart's fiddle again along for the ride) from the jovial driving rock'n'rollery of Will You Dance, Charlie Boy through the plangent I Found A Stray and the assorted toorah-looras and Jimmy Shands-style hoedown of The Rival to the more sinister portrait of The Tic-Tac Man.

These arguably-not-quite-so-daring adventures are then topped up with a track from last year's Cabaret Of Souls extravaganza (another portrait from the gallery, that of unrepentant murderer Auldie Riggs) which segues into a new recording of an associated dance-movement; the disc closes (less than logically, it must be admitted) with a brief number taken from the 1000 Years Of Popular Music project of around six years ago. I can't fathom the rationale for stretching this material out onto a second disc, when the album sessions proper could've easily fitted well within the capabilities of one generous 70-minute disc (without the 1000 Years extract, that is). Although the package includes lyrics for the main menu disc, it omits those for the songs on disc two (although with commendable efficiency they do appear on the Song-o-Matic page of RT's website).

So - a final verdict? Perhaps it's too early to vote Electric as one of RT's best-ever albums, but it does contain some standout material, and while there's nothing seriously sub-standard or specifically weak here in terms of the actual writing, it does harbour a bit of a warning sign in that some of the songs, while not exactly feeling to have been writ by rote or formula, just manage to sidestep a degree of contrivance in their rhyming scheme. In many respects, what will probably live as much in the listener's memory is Electric's integral musical signature, for it's a duly spontaneous-sounding, almost-as-rough-as-live diamond that doesn't require polishing.

David Kidman