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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1495

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Linda Thompson: Versatile Heart
by George Graham

(Rounder 3217 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/15/2007)

The English folk scene that arose in the late 1960s has been quite durable, in terms of its influence to younger artists, and also from the fact that many of the performers from that period are still active making new music.

Richard Thompson was one of the founders of Fairport Convention, arguably the best-known such group. It set the pattern for creative arrangements of both traditional songs and original music, with distinctive female lead vocals. In Fairport's case, it was the late Sandy Denny, and her haunting alto. After Richard Thomspon left Fairport to pursue his solo career, he became musical and marital partners with Linda Pettifer, who was also part of the London coffeehouse scene, and hung out with the likes of Nick Drake, and John Renbourn of the Pentangle. Ms. Pettifer had dropped out of college to pursue a musical career full time, and took on such gigs as recording commercial jingles as her "day job."

After a couple of post-Fairport solo albums, Richard Thompson began a series of duo albums with his wife Linda, and the Richard and Linda Thompson LPs from the 1970s like Pour Down Like Silver, and Shoot Out the Bright Lights became classics and some of the most praised in the genre.

The Thompsons went their separate ways, and Linda Thompson fell victim to a rare condition called spasmodic dysphonia which disabled her voice, preventing her from performing, and at times even speaking for some 17 years. In 2002, she made a comeback with a fine recording called Fashionably Late, and now five years later, still suffering from occasional periods of dysphonia, which has limited her abilities to perform live, she is out with Versatile Heart, another instant classic recording in which she resumes her role as one of the classic voices of English folk, with the usual diverse collection of traditional songs, original music -- comprising the majority -- and a cover tune or two.

The new CD, like her last, is a family affair. She is joined by her son Teddy Thompson, who is now getting to be well-known in his own right, and daughter Kamila, who was also a part of Fashionably Late. Also appearing are some family friends -- Martha and Rufus Wainwright -- the daughter and son of Loudon Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle. Other significant figures on this impressive gathering are Martin Carthy, who played guitar in an early incarnation of Fairport Convention, and his daughter Eliza, and Irish guitar virtuoso John Doyle, one of the founders of Solas. Ms. Thompson herself is in fine form, with her voice embodying that quality of the royalty of English folk who in their seeming cool detachment can evoke powerful images. The recording was made largely in New York, but some tracks were recorded in the England and Scotland.

There are instrumental bookends to the CD, two versions of a piece written by son Teddy. The opening is a solo guitar version of Stay Bright. <<>>

That serves as a prelude to the title song, Versatile Heart, co-written by mother and son -- Linda and Teddy Thompson. It's a kind of bittersweet love song -- actually more bitter than sweet. The backing vocalist also has a well-known surname in folk circles, Jenni Muldaur. <<>>

In a more positive mood is The Way I Love You, a collaboration with lyrics by Ms. Thompson and music by son Teddy. The song is in the classic English folk style, and Ms. Thompson reminds us that she remains one of the great voices in the genre. The backing vocalist is Martha Wainwright. <<>>

Ms. Thompson shows a little of her cabaret facet on Beauty, which features a string quartet accompaniment. It's another memorable track. <<>>

John Doyle, the Irish guitarist, has become a master of the English folk style, and he appears on the traditional song Katy Cruel, resulting in a superb performance in the classic style. <<>>

A considerable change of pace, however, comes on Linda and Teddy Thompson composition Do Your Best for Rock 'n Roll. Ms. Thompson and company do a kind of Elvis flavored tear-jerker. The result is a lot of fun. <<>>

Also showing a bit of country influence is Give Me a Sad Song, a composition co-written by Ms. Thompson and Betsy Cook, whom Ms. Thompson describes as a "songbird from Kentucky." <<>>

Another particularly striking track on Versatile Heart is Go Home, which is performed with just the acoustic guitar accompaniment of Larry Campbell. The lyrics deal with the dilemma of trying to avoid an affair with a married man. <<>>

Ms. Thompson performs a piece written by Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan, called Day After Tomorrow, a quietly eloquent anti-war song written from the standpoint of a soldier missing his family. <<>>

The CD ends with a string version of the opening instrumental Stay Bright, with the orchestration by Robert Kirby who wrote the string arrangements for the late Nick Drake. <<>>

Versatile Heart, the new recording by Linda Thompson is a gem of a CD by one of the great voices of English folk. She is in fine form on this album that is a pleasant family affair, with her son and daughter prominent and family friends helping out. Ms. Thompson's writing is also first-rate, with more contemporary topics than the castles, knights, and sorcerers one expects of traditional English folk. She says that as she gets older she seems to be writing more. The group supporting her is first-rate, and the accompaniment can be pleasantly eclectic at times, with guest appearances by a brass band, a couple of string quartets, a little twangy guitar and even a barbershop quartet. The result is fairly wide-ranging stylistically, but held together by Ms. Thompson's exceptional voice.

For it's sound quality, we'll give the CD a rare unqualified "grade A." The recording, mixed by Jay Newland, nicely captures the subtleties of Ms. Thompson's voice, and does very well by the acoustic instrumentation, especially given the nicely understated arrangements. Particularly rare is the good dynamic range, that lets the music be soft when it calls for it -- something almost unheard of in these days of heavily compressed in-your-face recordings.

Fans of English folk, whether they be those that go back to the original incarnation of Fairport Convention, or those who later discovered Nick Drake through a car commercial, can still find worthwhile new music being made in the genre. Linda Thompson's Versatile Heart is a particular reason to rejoice.

(c) Copyright 2007 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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