Richard Thompson's "Electric" Continues Celtic Mayhem Chronicles

Sexual obsession, ugly betrayals, bitter kiss-offs, working men's tribulations and mayhem (thankfully no murders here)— all of the traditional British balladry fare continue to preoccupy Richard Thompson as they have for decades. While he's moved on occasion through musical fashion, he always manages to return, as he does here, to his ground zero (dis)comfort zone.

Long time fans will find the familiar as discomforting and comfortable as ever. The songs are littered with Thompson's clever couplets and backed by his barbed wire electric guitar though despite the album title there's some acoustic work here as well.

Thanks to his inventive energy and a wide variety of production backdrops Thompson has managed throughout his forty plus year long solo recording career to make the familiar formula sound fresh and inviting. Here he turns in nearly a dozen originals, not a one of which could be described as filler. He can merge humor and violence and have you laughing and repulsed all in a single image.

Side one of this four sider covers: a toothless peeping tom (roughed up by "a pair of gorillas from the London Zoo." Though he's "dripping with blood, dripping with snot, he's still dreaming of her you-know-what,") a one night stand filled with regrets, a cynical politician and a working slob's tough life.

If you're looking for relief on side two, forget it. It opens with a song about enemy co-dependency, moves on to betrayal and paranoia, then rootlessness and ends with one of Thompson's most heartfelt break-up tunes (though tinged with his patented bitterness) that chronicles the protagonist's wife packing up her bags and walking out with the kids.

Side three covers temptation, regret and on "Snow Goose", the standout track on the side (perhaps because of its acoustic arrangement), a disorienting look at confusion, tentativeness and rejection with a haunting Alison Krauss backdrop. The side ends finally, with some redemption and comfort with wonderful harmonies from Siobhan Kennedy and a sweeping fiddle part from Stuart Duncan. Whew! It took three sides to get there.

This is a sharply drawn album that shines a halogen light on the dark side of life. You'll see yellow street lights, factory walls and tear drenched cobblestones.

Side four contains four of the deluxe CD's seven bonus tracks and like most bonus track collections they are not essential to the album's flow but as with most things Richard Thompson, nor are they by any means throwaways or rejects.

Yes, the subject matter can take you low but the energy level is high and Thompson's playing, driven by his strong longtime backing of Taras Produniak on bass and manocello and Michael Jerome on drums augmented by producer Buddy Miller and others, is as sharp and edgy as ever.

The recording was done to 16 track analog tape at Buddy Miller's studio and it sounds as if much of it was laid down live with lots of room sound thrown into the mix to produce a coherent stage filled with well-focused images and a minimum of studio artifice.

I had the CD here for weeks before the arrival of the double LP set, mastered by George Ingram at Nashville Record Productions, though the actual cut was accomplished by Wes Garland. As I suspected, though the record was recorded analog to 16 tracks, it was mixed to digital and it sounded on the CD as if plenty of dynamic compression had been applied. The sound on CD had the dark ProTools balance that removes the sparkle and air from cymbals and dulls transient snap, though the overall effect was pleasing and very listenable.

Mr. Garland told me that the record was cut using the 88.2/24 bit pre-mastered file but he also told me that out of concern for the vocal sibilants he felt it necessary to cut at reduced level. Given that this was pressed at United, I worried about noise but the records were commendably quiet and very well pressed. Note to URP: MORE LIKE THIS PLEASE!

Considering that there were four sides to work with, it's too bad Mr. Garland was concerned about the playback needs of people with cheap turntables. I don't think they'll be buying this vinyl! Please cut records for the best playback scenario.

You'll need to turn up the volume to get the life flowing from this record and even then it's a mixed bag though mostly a good one as long as you're not expecting Henry The Human Fly—like clarity, dynamics, imaging and drum kit sparkle because you ain't getting it despite the analog raw material starting point.

The drums in particular are soggy, squooshy and indistinct and overall dynamics suffer compared to the CD—and the CD is not exactly a dynamic powerhouse. The record betters the CD in terms of three-dimensionality and particularly guitar textures thanks in part to the 24 bit file resolution used to produce the record.

The acoustic number "Snow Goose" in particular sounds far better on record thanks in no small part to very quiet vinyl (and the sibilants weren't close to unhinging my or any decent analog rig), but despite the analogue beginnings I'm afraid this can't be considered a sonic standout. Still I'll take warm and somewhat murky every day over icy and cold.

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my new username's picture

I find it ironic digital mixing was done, when there were so reletively few TRACKS, and fewer performers that needed mixing here. In other words, digital's supposed mixing advantage of being able to endlesslsy/effortlessly tweak was ... what, here?

Perhaps the number of quality analog desks, and experienced mix engineers, has dried up more than even the vintage recorders that could feed them (he said, in more ways than one.) Somebody call Dave Grohl and go rent the Neve he scrounged from Sound City!

Now that I think about it I don't recall really anything about the drums. As in, non-memorable. Hmm ...

No, not much sparkle nor standout clarity, however I never got the impression Thompson's vocals weren't presented as anything less than very good. Overall this recording has a relaxed feeling I appreciated and that I think served the material appropriately.

Being cut at a lower level to help reign in sibilants isn't a cause for concern when the vinyl is this quiet, IMO. I particularly recall Salford Sunday sounding sibilantly successful. Say that 3 times fast.

Michael Fremer's picture

I think it's as much money as technical. It just gets more expensive to mix to analog and then cut from analog. Of course from where we sit, that's the way it should be done if you're going to record that way in the first place. 

I thought some of the comments here were TOUGH. I'm a RT fan and as such I enjoy the journey and the ups and downs, kind of like hearing from an old friend regardless of his or her mood or circumstances.

It's like McCartney's "Kisses on the Bottom." Got some scathing reviews. I loved it myself. I wasn't expecting "Band on the Run" ....

John G's picture

I turned this up like you said Michael and my natural response was to turn it back down.  This one will be for low level or background listening, I'm afraid.

What does the US label look like?  I have a UK pressing and it has a red Proper Records label.  Wondering if the US ones were different. 

Paul Boudreau's picture

I'm with you, Michael.

My US copy has red New West Records labels.

robertaich's picture

My copy arrived from amazon yesterday and I'm afraid my pressing is going right back. There's a loud left-channel scraping throughout side one (I didn't even bother to drop the needle on the others). I hope it's a one-off and a replacement does the trick. 

John G's picture

Can't get into this one.  Maybe because my sonic expectations were high, it's certainly no 'Old Kit Bag'..  I'll revisit this one down the road with lesser expectations.  Much to listen to instead.  Wish more of the songs sounded as good as Snow Goose.  Some said they were going for a Garage Band sound whatever that is.

Fsonicsmith's picture

Unfortunately, a fitting name for where Richard is musically these days. I bought that release and boy, what a stinker of recycling and regurgitation. Mock Tudor was the same rubbish. Rumor and Sigh and Mirror Blue were his Nadir after his masterpiece with LInda, Shoot Out the Lights IMHO.  I used to be an adoring fan. Not the type to wear a beret at a concert mind you (and I attended many and saw lots of berets on men and women, poor souls), but a big fan. In my view, his collaboration with Danny Thompson on "Industry" is where things began to go South, though I rather liked "Industry".  Thanks for the review Mikey; it gave me an excellent feel for what my money would buy me if I bought the vinyl. I will pass. I like Buddy Miller, but I think Richard needs to look up Mitchell Froom again, or maybe Joe Henry. He still has great guitar chops but he has lost the creativity he had when working with Mitch Froom.

elliotdrum's picture

I have been a RT fan since hearing Fairport in the sixties-

I have seen him live and I am also a Buddy Miller fan.

 How exciting to hear a collaboration is coming out.

I purchased the double cd and my problem I think is

not with the music- The compression is the worst I have

ever encountered. I can hardly turn it up until the whole

midrange get's over muddied. I am not bragging but I have

over $50K in equipment and we have to stop this stoopid

method for recording for ipods. I thought the Beatles releases

were poor this could be worse. The federal government has to

pass a law against compression!!! Fix the Beatles and paleeeze

stop compressing our recordings for god sake. POWER TO THE PEOPLE

galacticz00's picture

I too have been an RT fan for more years than I care to remember first seeing Fairport with Sandy Denny more than 40 years ago. I have both CD and LP versions of Electric and it wasn't until I got the LP that I really got into it, like most of RT's albums it's a grower.  I'm sure like me his fans will love it, and he has many on both sides of the Atlantic. Those that aren't fans probably won't.  My LP was the UK version which disappointingly came with a few surface marks that unfortunately seems the norm for new vinyl these days whatever the source.

rosser's picture

I haven't heard this one, but your description of the sound reminds me of a new album I picked up on a whim -- Rumer's "Boy's Don't Cry." Aside from the vinyl looking like a Pringle's potato chip, it played quietly. When she is singing with spare instrumentation, the sound is pretty good. But as soon as the music gets at all more complex, the sound becomes like a monochromatic blur -- like a single entity without a bit of air between anything or anybody. You know the monolith in "2001"? Like that, but without the monkeys. I suspected this was due to compression and ProTools digititis. It became so boring so quickly that I couldn't make it through the side, though I liked the music and her voice. Honestly, I was glad it was so severely warped (the worst I've seen, and that's saying something) so I'd have an excuse to return it. No sense wearing my stylus on something that would sound no different than plugging in my iPod. 

John G's picture

I snagged this from another site. Looks like Richard answered this question on his Website. It's at least encouraging that he was willing to address this issue, instead of ignoring it (although it won't change anything). QUESTION: Re: Mastering of Electric: I would like to ask Richard why the sound on the new cd is squashed flat and why is the cd so loud? The songs on Electric are some of the best songs you have written in years but the mastering is I am sorry to say abysmal. ANSWER from Richard: The recording uses a lot of compression on the room mics. We thought this suited the overall intention of the project. These things tend to be a matter of personal taste.