Album of the Week, November 9: Two from Richard Thompson – Henry the Human Fly and Front Parlour Ballads
November 9, 2014 Leave a comment
Richard Thompson was born in London in 1949; many members of his family were musicians, both amateur and professional. He absorbed a wide variety of music ranging from rock to jazz to traditional Scottish tunes. He picked up the guitar in school and quickly developed a distinctive style merging his influences. He helped found Fairport Convention, and during the band’s first five albums contributed many original songs, his eclectic musical knowledge, and a unique guitar sound. He left Fairport in 1971 for a solo career, soon marrying and recording with Linda Thompson, née Peters. Throughout the 70s they released a string of varied, beautiful albums while starting a family and spending some time in a Sufi commune. By 1982 the marriage was over and Thompson returned to a solo career. He had established a sterling reputation as a songwriter and guitarist, both on his own work and as an in-demand session guitarist. During the 80s he released a series of albums cementing his place as a unique voice in rock, continuing to blend folk, pop, jazz, and his often dark, frequently witty observations. He flirted with signficant alt-rock success in the 90s, then returned to independent recordings that gave him greater control and less concern about corporate demands. Over five decades he has released dozens of albums, received an Orville H. Gibson guitar award, an Ivor Novello songwriting award, a lifetime achievement award from the BBC, an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen, and an OBE in the 2011 New Year Honours. A unique talent, clever lyricist, knowledgable music historian, and sometime festival curator, Thompson is more engaged and active than ever at the age of 65. While many of his albums rank among my favorites, two stand out as especially distinct, bracketing the bulk of his career.
starring as Henry the Human Fly
Front Parlour Ballads
|Release Date||April 1972||August 2005|
|Producer||Richard Thompson and John Wood||Richard Thompson and Simon Tassano|
Legend has it that Henry the Human Fly is the worst-selling album in Warner Bros. history; it certainly took its time to catch on. Thompson left Fairport without a clear direction, simply knowing that he wanted to pursue his own writing and musical vision. Building on his knowledge and Fairport experiences, he crafted an album of folk-tinged rock with a distinctly English vision. Frequently pastoral, evocative of the country’s rich history, eclectic, and fun, it took fans and critics somewhat aback. They were especially surprised to hear so little of his trademark electric guitar sounds; the many friends who came along for the ride provided fiddles, harp, dulcimer, and accordion and Thompson himself played far more acoustic than electric guitar. All of that suited the musical themes, however, and the electric moments stand out particularly well because of their scarcity.
Roll Over Vaughn Williams is the perfect opener, invoking the very English composer and music historian as Thompson announces his take on modern Englishness. One of the most electric songs, it swirls and enchants, drawing the listener in with an enticement and a warning. Side two’s first track, The New St. George, is a similar statement of purpose, a charming, folky the-more-things-change song. This pair anchors the album, providing the framework for the other tracks.
While best known for his darkly ironic take on life, Thompson has a wicked sense of humor and a real love of fun in his music. Nobody’s Wedding is the finest example, a bit of social commentary dressed up as a modern reel with accordion fills. It’s also one of his best vocals on the album; he had little experience singing lead but was quickly coming into his own. Mary and Joseph is another off-kilter moment, as is the sublime The Angels Took My Racehorse Away.
Cold Feet has a darker humor, with a self-deprecating lyric that fits the proceedings nicely. Other looks at romantic opportunities taken and missed include Shaky Nancy and The Poor Ditching Boy which blends in a bit of the work song for good measure. Painted Ladies rounds out this theme, a sad but touching look at both sides of the economics of love for sale.
The British folk side of Thompson is woven throughout the disc, but is particularly clear in two tracks. Wheely Down is a mysterious ode to the land, an evocative, pastoral song that is one of his finest lyrics. The Old Changing Way is a story song about working brothers, betrayal, and hard times; if it weren’t for the writing credit, it would be easy to believe that it’s a traditional song.
The album wraps up with Twisted, a short look at life from the inside of a bottle — a theme that Thompson revisits throughout his career. It’s a nod and a wink sort of song that serves as a nice good-night-and-thank-you.
Fast forward to 2005. With a huge musical catalog, increasingly diverse and sophisticated writing credits, numerous “best guitarist” plaudits, and a much more confident vocal approach, Thompson decided to craft an album of intimate sketches in his home studio. Like Henry, it is notable for its focus on acoustic guitar, its diverse set of story songs that hew to folk traditions without being constrained by them, and its flashes of wit among the dark doings. Unlike the earlier album, however, it’s virtually a solo outing, with Thompson playing every instrument except some percussion provided by Debra Dobkin.
This set kicks off with a very strong acoustic track, the charming Let It Blow. A darkly amusing tale of romantic misdeeds, it lets the listener know that the stories told in this parlour will be very Thompsonian — and that’s a lovely thing. Other sketches in song are the engaging near jig of Miss Patsy and the creepy but compelling Should I Betray? The Boys of Mutton Street could have appeared on Henry, presenting the actions of a timeless gang of ne’er-do-wells. Row, Boys, Row is more metaphor than story, a modern work song that links to themes of economic abuse that appear throughout Thompson’s career. It’s a powerful track that takes a hard look at cause, effect, powerlessness, and complicity.
For Whose Sake is a sorrowful look at a wasted romance that benefits from the less-is-more approach of the album. Precious One visits similar themes with a very different sort of regret and shows off the higher register of Thompson’s vocals nicely. Far more bitter but equally well drawn is the elliptical How Does Your Garden Grow? Cressida evokes the classical character in a brief, poignant sketch. Rounding out these themes of regret and betrayal is the energetic A Solitary Life, a strong hint at the musical direction of future albums.
Romance is not always a bitter affair in this parlour. Old Thames Side is a declaration of love despite the efforts of nay-sayers. It’s one of Thompson’s most direct love songs, even with the dark twist, and he is in very fine voice as he delivers it. My Soul, My Soul is a more eccentric, obsessive sort of love song, surging with erotic energy. It’s one of the rare Parlour tracks with a dominant electric guitar and serves a centerpiece. It’s also one of the best Thompson songs of the past decade.
The album ends with When We Were Boys At School, a sinister character sketch that makes a potent coda to the stories and sketches of Front Parlour Ballads. It wraps things up with a very Thompson flourish.
Despite emerging more than 30 years apart, Henry the Human Fly and Front Parlour Ballads feel very connected. They evoke strong emotions, look at the darker side of human endeavor, celebrate long traditions, and have a strong sense of wit that leavens things. Bookending the bulk of Richard Thompson’s career, they make a case for his remarkable consistency even as they demonstrate his growth as a writer, player, and singer.