Legendary folk artist trips up on new album
At his best, Richard Thompson sweats and bleeds and rages in his music, his voice cracking and guitar notes bending with each emotional power-punch. At his worst, he’s a perfectionist whose precise finger-picking and deep, resonant baritone over-emote on some of his more traditional-sounding folk tunes to the point that Thompson saps them of the intensity he packs into his best songs.
Front Parlour Ballads, a mostly acoustic disc Thompson recorded, warts and all, in his Los Angeles home studio, is a perfect case in point. After an opening trio of signature songs—the driving, devil-may-care wordplay of “Let it Blow,” the poisonous lyrical daggers of the mournful “For Who’s Sake?” and the jaunty, intelligent love song “Miss Patsy”—Thompson retreats into purist mode. For starters, no folk song in 2005 should begin with the line “As I was a walkin’,” as “Old Thames Side” does. But cliché is not the only thing that mars “Thames” and other tunes, such as “How Does Your Garden Grow,” “Cressida” or “Precious One.” It’s the lethargy of the tempos, the navel-gazing compositional complexity, the empty ?ashiness of the acoustic-guitar runs and over-enunciated words.
The best material here is classic Thompson. He breaks out his electric guitar for some note-bending genius in “My Soul, My Soul.” Traditional folkies will love singing along to “The Boys of Mutton Street.” Recently divorced Peter Pans will identify with “A Solitary Life.” And fans of Desperate Housewives will enjoy the guilty, gossipy pleasures of “Should I Betray?”
Overall, though, Thompson could’ve kept most of these front-parlour tunes packed safely away in an attic corner where they belong.