Richard Thompson does it all on 'Ballads'

August 11, 2005|By Jim Farber | Jim Farber,Knight Ridder / Tribune

It's hard to consider any musician lazy who has batted out 21 albums of original material, plus a dozen live releases.

But Richard Thompson somehow manages to see himself that way.

"If you're going to be any kind of artist you have to be on the case 24 hours a day," he says. "Sometimes I have to pull myself up short and remind myself of my obligations."

Thompson even thinks it "neglectful" of his muse that he never before recorded an album like his new one, Front Parlour Ballads. The disc, out Aug. 9, is the first studio work in Thompson's illustrious 38-year career that comprises entirely original songs on which he manned every instrument himself.

Thompson, 56, had cut one true solo disk before -- 1981's Strict Tempo! -- but it housed instrumental covers. His other one-man albums have been live works featuring songs well known for earlier, more elaborate takes.

What Thompson wanted this time was to create songs that "sound like they're being sung to just one person."

The title Front Parlour Ballads shows a yen for the archaic that has defined Thompson's career from the start.

In 1967, Thompson cemented his reputation as a gifted teenage writer / guitarist in Fairport Convention, the first band to successfully electrify Celtic music. In the process, Fairport created an entire genre -- British traditional folk-rock. The amalgam made the group as important to the history of U.K. folk as the Byrds were to its U.S. equivalent.

"We were attempting to restore the culture of Britain for the British," Thompson says. "But the English, in particular, aren't comfortable with their own culture. To be taken seriously, it has to come from somewhere else. So we remained a cult band."

Soon after Fairport's star singer, Sandy Denny, left the group in 1970, Thompson ankled as well. He then issued a series of albums with his wife, Linda. Their last, 1982's Shoot Out the Lights, chronicled the couple's divorce and wound up becoming one of the most critically admired LPs of all time.

Thompson remains modest about the acclaim. He labels the record just "OK" and soberly surmises the reason people cherish it more than his other works is "that it's short. People don't like to be overloaded."

He himself thinks his finest work is 1999's Mock Tudor.

"Somehow that came out sounding better than we would have thought," Thompson says. "Just about everything we tried worked." In any case, he thinks less in terms of full albums than individual songs to be re-evaluated in concert.

The new album introduces a host of colorful characters, including a wayward soul who gets kidnapped, goes to jail and hooks up with a doomsday religious cult, a galley slave who muses on the futility of it all, an abused boy who grows up to be the biggest abuser of all, and two first-class cads -- a favorite character-type in Thompson's work.

The opening cut catches Thompson at his most lip-smackingly cynical, drooling over the tales of a man who keeps marrying women only to dump them. "Life's little traumas / And courtroom dramas / Make me glad I'm alive," he gleefully sings.

"Being in a rock 'n' roll band you get to meet some real characters," he explains. "A great pastime in a bus or plane is to recount tales of excess or debauchery. That's part of the fun."

So, too, is Thompson's guitar work. He's a first-rate ax hero. Mark Knopfler, for one, seemingly learned much of what he knows from him.

This year, Thompson plans to display his talents on more projects than ever. He has three DVDs coming, from various live shows, a soundtrack he penned for the new Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man, plus the second box set of his career, featuring five CDs.

Still, Thompson insists he's not prolific. "I write maybe 16 good songs a year," he says. "That's a little over one a month. That doesn't sound like hard work to me. It's not like being J.S. Bach and having to write an oratorio a week, with a few sonatas and fugues on the side."

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