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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1291

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Linda Thompson: Fashionably Late
by George Graham

(Rounder 3182 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/31/2002)

The English folk scene of the 1960s had a great deal more influence than popularity at the time. For a style that sold a relative handful of records, and left some of its artists literally living in poverty, names like Steeleye Span, the Pentangle, Nick Drake, and Fairport Convention are looked upon by many, especially other artists, with a degree of reverence that seems only to grow with time. And to this day, the artists and the music continue to find new fans, while those who have been attracted to the music over the years, remain devoted. Fairport Convention this year marks 35 years together as a band, and its co-founder Richard Thompson remains active as a much respected singer-songwriter. This week, we have a fascinating album that marks a return of a significant and much-acclaimed artist who has been absent from the scene for nearly two decades -- Linda Thompson, whose new CD is called, perhaps with more than a touch of irony, Fashionably Late.

First, a little of the somewhat complicated history behind Ms. Thompson and this album. Many still recall the heyday of Fairport Convention when Richard Thompson was guitarist and the late Sandy Denny was principal lead vocalist. Ms. Denny set the pattern for the dusky alto that defined the English folk scene: clear, somewhat detached, and seeming to evoke ancient misty castles. Both Ms. Denny and Thompson left the band by around 1970. In the meantime, Linda Pettifer, who had been attending London University in 1967, began to hang out on the coffeehouse scene, where she pursued her interest in folk music. She dropped out of university to become a full-time performer under the name Linda Peters, singing folk music at night, and recording commercial jingles by day. She soon became fast friends with people like Nick Drake, John Renbourn of the Pentangle, Sandy Denny, and Richard Thompson, who would become her husband.

After releasing a couple of solo albums in the early 1970s, Richard Thompson began a recording collaboration with the by-then Mrs. Thompson, resulting in some of the most widely praised albums from the English folk scene during the 1970s. Ms. Thompson carried on the tradition of Sandy Denny, with her stunning vocals that were a perfect foil for Richard Thompson's often melancholy baritone.

The pressures of a the music business -- being hailed by critics but living in penury -- took their toll, and Richard's conversion to Sufism further affected their career. The Thompsons' marriage fell apart, though they did have three children. Linda Thompson remarried, and eventally released a couple of solo albums.But what had become a performance anxiety eventually overwhelmed Linda Thompson, leading to what is clinically called hysterical dysphonia, which left her literally unable to sing, or even speak at times. By 1985, she completely gave up trying to perform.

Over the years, Ms. Thompson has gradually been overcoming her dysphonia and has started to be able to sing again. This album is her first in 17 years.

While Ms. Thompson had been away from the music scene, she was by no means forgotten, and Fashionably Late is filled with two generations of English folk artists, from Danny Thompson of the Pentangle and Dave Mattacks from Fairport Convention, to acclaimed young singer Kate Rusby, and her own now-rising son, Teddy Thompson. Even Richard Thompson makes an appearance. The trans-Atlantic recording also features American musicians like Van Dyke Parks who has worked with Brian Wilson, long-time folk and bluesman Geoff Muldaur, and another second-generation singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright.

Fashionably Late is in the classic style, which is to say, fairly eclectic, ranging from a kind of mock-traditional song to contemporary acoustic sounds, to a piece with a string orchestra arranged by the same person who did similar duties for the late Nick Drake. Teddy Thompson wrote a fair amount of the material with his mother.

While Ms. Thompson's voice has the qualities that marked her work in the late 1970s, and led both "Time" and "Rolling Stone" to call her singer of the year, it must be said that her dysphonia, and her long years without singing have taken their toll. While sometimes her voice can be stunning on the new CD, at other times, her control is not as good, and occasionally her singing can assume oddly plain quality. But for the most part, the combination of her classic vocal timbre, the excellent musicianship, the high-quality songwriting, and the impressive guest list makes Fashionably Late a real gem.

Leading off, is a track that can accurately be described as a family affair. Dear Mary was written by Ms. Thompson and son Teddy, and features Richard Thompson on guitar and backing vocals, and another of their children, Kamila doing backing vocals. The unrelated Danny Thompson, who a couple of years ago made an album with Richard Thompson, is heard on his acoustic bass, another sound that came to define English folk during his work in the Pentangle. The sound is instantly classic. <<>>

Miss Murray is a sad song by Ms. Thompson and her son Teddy, nicely performed in an intimate setting that nevertheless boasts some impressive guests, Van Dyke Parks on the accordion, Richard Greene, formerly of the 60s band Seatrain on violin, Kate Rusby on backing vocals, and John Doyle, formerly of the acclaimed Celtic band Solas on the guitar. <<>>

Nine Stone Rig is in the classic English folk style -- a somewhat spooky murder ballad. Ms. Thompson based the song on a couple of verses of an old what she calls "faux" Scottish ballad that dates back to Sir Walter Scott. John Doyle, the Solas guitarist, last year made a CD called Evening Comes Early in which he moved from the Celtic style into the kind of archetypal English folk sound in the tradition of John Renbourn or Bert Jansch, and succeeded very well. Now he joins two of the venerable figures in the genre, Ms. Thompson and bassist Danny Thompson, for a real highlight of the album. <<>>

Much more sentimental is No Telling, the story of a man in the depths of dejection, who finds solace in a love song performed in a bar. Kate Rusby also appears on the harmony vocals. <<>>

Likewise melancholy in mood is The Banks of the Clyde, an original song by Ms. Thompson that has the sound of a traditional piece. She dedicates the song of homesickness to her brother Brian. <<>>

All I See is another track in a downcast musical mood that is reminiscent of the Richard and Linda Thompson recordings. The song of loneliness and lament at separation features a couple of Fairport Convention veterans in the gathered ranks, including guitarist Jerry Donahue and drummer Dave Mattacks. The song was written by Teddy Thompson, who appears doing backing vocals with his mother. <<>>

Paint & Powder Beauty represents quite a change of musical mood. The song was co-written by Ms. Thompson and Rufus Wainwright, and lyrically evokes the mood of a cabaret torch singer, while the accompaniment features more veterans of the English folk scene: guitarist Martin Carthy, another early member of Fairport, plus the string arrangements of Robert Kirby, known for his work on the late Nick Drake's first two albums. Unfortunately, here it does not seem to work particularly well, with the result sounding stiff, and not entirely appropriate for the song. <<>>

The CD ends with a composition that probably took Ms. Thompson quite a while to write: Dear Old Man of Mine is about her former husband Richard, and it features two of their children, Teddy and Kamila. Its mood, like that of much of the album is decidedly melancholy. <<>>

For long time English folk fans, it's a real treat to hear the return of Linda Thompson after a 17-year absence from the music scene. While her voice has still not regained all the subtlety of control that marked her memorable work in the 1970s and early 1980s, she remains a formidable singer who brings to bear the qualities that epitomize the English folk style. Her new songs, many written with her son Teddy, are first-rate, imbued as they are with the delicious melancholy that is part of the genre. It is also a rare assemblage of outstanding and in many cases seminal players of two generations, and for many fans, the track that reunites Richard and Linda Thompson may be worth the price of the CD alone.

Our grade for sound quality, is an "A." The recording is virtually free of electronic effects, Ms. Thompson's vocal is rendered especially bereft of "sweetening," as they say in the business, and there is generally good clarity on the acoustic instruments. Dynamic range is better than average given current the unfortunate industry trend toward a compressed sound even on some acoustic CDs.

It's highly unlikely that English folk will ever become a mass-appeal genre. But its influence remains high. That is especially true for this CD, on which so many influential musicians apparently jumped at the chance to appear. Linda Thompson's Fashionably Late is a record for which long-time fans have waited at length, and one that, for the most part, rewards the anticipation.

(c) Copyright 2002 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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