Song of the Day, February 17: Crazy Man Michael by Fairport Convention

fapcollcrazyToday’s song sees a challenge result in a masterpiece. Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is best known for pioneering the trad-rock genre. It also includes three smart tracks written by members of the band, songs that capture the traditional folk essence despite their modern composition. One began as a hybrid of the two and emerged as the perfect closer to the disc.

Richard Thompson wrote Crazy Man Michael, a tragic tale of doomed love and dark magic, setting his words to a traditional tune. Fiddler Dave Swarbrick loved the words but thought the tune weakened them. Thompson challenged him to come up with something better, and he rose to the challenge. Composing on piano instead of his usual fiddle, Swarb came up with brooding, haunting tune that suits the lyrics perfectly. The result was one of the handful of Thompson/Swarbrick compositions that mark some of the best of original Fairport.

The band were clearly inspired by the song, turning in one of the tightest performances on the album. Simon Nicol’s acoustic guitar shimmers around Swarb’s magical fiddle lines. Sandy Denny’s vocal is restrained and aching. Daves Mattacks and Pegg support things brilliantly, with a subtle but urgent rhythm. Thompson’s brief turns on electric lead — a solo in the middle and a bright closing figure — provide the perfect note of anguish. The result is a modern song that fits into the traditional settings and a clever closing to a masterful album.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, December 23: Walking Through A Wasted Land by Richard Thompson

rtcrowdedwastedToday’s song is a standout from the album that launched the third phase of Richard Thompson’s career. He left Fairport Convention — a band he helped found — after five albums, moving on to an early solo disc and a series of recordings with his wife, Linda. As their marriage disintegrated, he went solo again for a couple of indie releases.

In 1985, he signed with Polydor and recorded Across A Crowded Room with old friend Joe Boyd producing. It’s a great set that finds him leading a smart band with new confidence. One of the finest moments is the snarling rebuke of Thatcher’s Britain, Walking Through A Wasted Land.

Thompson turns his trademark lyrical smarts toward greed and corruption. He leads the band with one of his finest vocals and a wonderful guitar line. Rollicking horns and energetic backing vocals from Gregson and Collister keep the track moving.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, August 5: We Sing Hallelujah by Richard and Linda Thompson

ThompsonHallelujahToday’s song is a modern working class anthem. When Richard Thompson left Fairport Convention, he wanted to build on the traditional music the band was exploring while pursuing his own distinctive vision. The result was a charming blend of English sensibility, wry humor, and timeless themes. After one solo disc, he and wife Linda began a decade-long musical collaboration, starting with the amazing I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.

The disc is a lively mix of songs that look at the concerns of the everyday person. Themes of work and toil run through much of the music. We Sing Hallelujah is a smart update of the worksong. Calling on the season cycle, the Thompsons channel the endless nature of daily work. They infuse it with joy, however, celebrating a job well done and the pauses in the cycle that signify accomplishment. It’s a fun song, uplifting but tied to the mundane, a tricky balance that the singers and band carry off with aplomb.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

PS – With this entry I’m wrapping up regular posts on Music and Meaning. It’s been a lot of fun sharing my favorite music, but finding the time to write good posts regularly is increasingly challenging. I hope to pop new things into the virtual jukebox from time to time, but daily posts are done. It seemed fitting to end with a track from a favorite album (also my last regular Album of the Week post) by two of my favorite artists. Thanks for listening!

Song of the Day, June 6: Let It Blow by Richard Thompson

rtFrontParlourToday’s song is a delightful tale of romantic mismatch. On his stellar 2005 album Front Parlour Ballads, Richard Thompson stripped things down, playing almost all the instruments himself and crafting careful, often deceptively simple tracks. The opening number is a standout, a classic Thompson story.

Let It Blow tells the story of a charming cad and his romantic pursuit of an Air New Zealand hostess. Filled with amusing details and witty asides, the song details their courtship, travails, and eventual failure. Thompson is at his witty best, and the spare musical setting lets the words have their way, as the acoustic guitar provides a lovely setting.

O he loved the pursuit and the romance
But the details were more of a chore
When the bride’s veil lifted, his mind soon drifted
At least that’s what happened before

Enjoy this delightful song today.

Song of the Day, April 20: For Shame of Doing Wrong by Richard and Linda Thompson

R&LPourShameToday’s song is a standout from a turning point album. After three years of marriage and two albums together, Richard and Linda Thompson moved into a Sufi commune, intending to set aside their musical careers. They owed Island records an album, however, so they struck a deal, balancing four tracks that were based on Richard’s meditations about the divine with others that were more of a piece with previous work. The finest moments transcend both categories, notably For Shame of Doing Wrong.

A song of mourning for lost love, it’s a powerful testament to emotion. Linda delivers a stark vocal, supported by an unusually restrained guitar from Richard, creating a darkly evocative track. Often re-titled I Wish I Was A Fool For You Again from the repeated chorus line, the song is one of Richard’s most covered, including versions by Sandy Denny, Peter Blegvad, and Yo La Tengo.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Album of the Week, March 20: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson

ThompsonBrightLightsRichard Thompson and Linda Peters met in 1969, while he was still in Fairport Convention and she was working on a folk music career. With mutual friends including Sandy Denny and Simon Nicol, they spent occasional time together, finally working on joint projects in late 1971. With many Fairport members and alumni they were part of the Bunch, recording fun covers of a dozen 50s hits for the album Rock On. The couple toured with Simon Nicol as Hokey Pokey, and Linda provided backing vocals on Richard’s solo debut, Henry the Human Fly, released in 1972. They married later that year and began working on their first project as a couple. The result, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, set a high bar for both their careers.

Album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Act Richard & Linda Thompson
Label Island Release Date April 1974
Producer Richard Thompson and John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. When I Get to the Border
  2. The Calvary Cross
  3. Withered and Died
  4. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
  5. Down Where the Drunkards Roll
  6. We Sing Hallelujah
  7. Has He Got A Friend For Me?
  8. The Little Beggar Girl
  9. The End of the Rainbow
  10. The Great Valerio

The album featured vocals from both partners. As with Henry, Richard played guitars, mandolin, dulcimer, and a variety of other instruments. His guitar work is more restrained than on many of his other recordings, but no less powerful for it. The rhythm section of Timmy Donald (drums) and Pat Donaldson (bass) — both part of the Bunch — provided a solid backing, and a sizable lineup of folk friends pitched in as well. Building on the distinctly English folk-rock of Richard’s work to date, the ten tracks shimmer with modern energy while steeped in something deeply traditional.

Things start off aptly with a journeying song. When I Get to the Border features Richard’s best vocal to this point as he describes an effort to escape the mundanities of life. He may literally wander the dusty street or simply push the borders by drowning “in a barrel of wine”, but he’ll find a way to transcend the tedium. It’s a fun, grim, almost optimistic song, hinting at the lyrical themes that would become RT staples. The Calvary Cross is a darker, mystical song, reminiscent of his writings with Fairport fiddler Dave Swarbrick. Linda takes the lead vocal on Withered and Died, a mournful song of loss that gains humanity and tentative warmth from her sympathetic delivery.

The title track is a masterpiece, another bit of escapism with more hope and determination. A bright horn section gives it delightful energy, and the Thompsons almost frolic through their demands for a great night on the town. Continuing the masterful sequencing, Down Where the Drunkards Roll looks at those whose fate after the bright lights is less than giddy. With a stunning harmony vocal from Trevor Lucas (soon to join Fairport), it wraps up side one in powerful — if dark — style.

Side two opens with another song of transition, celebrating the “turning of the year.” We Sing Hallelujah is a secular hymn, a hope for better days, given power by the interweaving of the Thompsons’ vocals. Linda turns in a gorgeous lead on Has He Got A Friend For Me? a song of longing that would have fit perfectly among the hits of Linda Ronstadt. Quietly aching, it’s one of her finest performances — no mean feat. The Little Beggar Girl is a smart bit of modern folk propelled by John Kirkpatrick’s sprightly accordion. A delightful celebration of the strength of the oppressed, it gains power from Linda’s fun vocal.

Richard goes to one of his bleakest places — also no mean feat — on his anti-lullaby The End of the Rainbow. A dark reflection on the pain and suffering in the world, it’s a cheerless warning to a small child, brimming with humanity but offering little hope. Things wrap up in stunning fashion with The Great Valerio. A stirring acoustic number, it features a powerfully subtle guitar line from Richard and an enchanting vocal from Linda. A metaphor for living life fully and honestly, it’s a standout in both catalogs and a perfect closer to a great album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Spending a couple of years away from music in Sufi communes in the 70s, the Thompsons only released six albums in just under a decade before their marriage detonated. All six are interesting, although the results are curiously inconsistent. After Bright Lights, they released

  • Hokey Pokey (1975), a decent follow-up that is fairly consistent but never rises to the level of its predecessor.
  • Pour Down Like Silver (1975), the first album to openly embrace Richard’s turn toward Sufism, eight stunning tracks without a falter.
  • First Light (1978), their return to music, an amiable set with some great songs and some unfortunate production.
  • Sunnyvista (1979), interesting and adequate, but largely uninspired. Richard and Linda never recorded a bad song, but this is their weakest set.

After this, they lost their label and recorded a disastrous set with Gerry Rafferty producing; the results were mercifully shelved. Long-time friend Joe Boyd signed them to his tiny start-up label, Hannibal, and helped them salvage that material, resulting in one of the finest albums ever recorded, Shoot Out the Lights (1982). The couple famously imploded both on and off stage during the following year before splitting for good. Richard has maintained an impressive solo career, racking up honors and critical acclaim while pursuing his distinctive musical and lyrical vision. Linda started a solo career as well before vocal problems sidelined her for years. She continues to turn out occasional, lovely albums. Two of their children — Teddy and Kami — are also in the business, often working with one parent or the other. Richard has provided guitar work on a couple of Linda’s songs, and the whole family got together for an amazing album in 2014.

Song of the Day, March 17: Guns Are the Tongues by Richard Thompson

RTSWGunsToday’s song is Richard Thompson’s Guns Are the Tongues. It’s the penultimate track from his 2007 release, Sweet Warrior, a loose concept album about war and violence. A classic RT epic, it builds over seven minutes, relating a grim tale. Carrie is the leader of a “murderous crew” and she needs just the right patsy to help pull off a nasty bit of revenge. She finds Little Joe, a lumbering hulk of 19, seducing him into doing her bidding. Thompson captures her voice flawlessly, intoning “Bring peace to the grave of my brother” with elegant anguish, making it clear how she captured the heart of her doomed dupe. With restrained but urgent guitar flourishes and great work from his seasoned band, Thompson turns in one of the finest moments of his recent career.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, January 27: The New St. George by Richard Thompson

RTHenryGeorgeToday’s song is one half of the statement of purpose to Richard Thompson’s brilliant solo debut, Henry the Human Fly. Side one opens with the ironically electric Roll Over Vaughn Williams. Side two employs opens with the more trad-folk sound of The New St. George. Thompson explores a very English take on things staying the same the more they change. With wit and razor keen observation, he insists that we remain vigilant, not allowing the forces in power to take advantage of us. Using the music of the people as a motivator he intones

Leave the factory, leave the forge
and dance to the New St. George.

Enjoy this stirring song today.

Song of the Day, December 21: That’s Enough by Thompson

ThompsonFamilyEnoughToday’s song is a great piece of protest folk from an unexpected family reunion. Teddy Thompson asked all the members of his musical family to contribute a couple of songs to a shared project. He assembled all the pieces, building a remarkably cohesive album that he aptly named Family.

One of the strongest moments is a track written and sung by his father, Richard Thompson. That’s Enough is a straightforward protest song, a call to action for the 99% who “still keep falling for the same old lies.” Richard gets things rolling with an urgent verse, then the whole family joins in for the chorus. It’s a wonderful delivery of a powerful message.

Enjoy this amazing song today, both in its original version and in a stirring live performance.

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