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Opinion: New releases by Thompson, Nelson reviewed

February 28, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

This week I review new releases by Richard Thompson and Willie Nelson.

- Richard Thompson - "Electric"

Richard Thompson will never be a household name, and that's a damn shame. One of the finest songwriters of the past 40 years, Thompson also is a spellbinding performer and truly innovative guitarist who is equally at home on electric or acoustic.

"Electric," his latest effort released two weeks ago on New West Records, is yet another album boasting a string of extraordinarily well-written songs by the modern band of our time. By this time in his career, Thompson really is incapable of writing a "bad" song. Unlike most of his other studio releases, "Electric" finds Thompson stepping out a bit more than usual in the studio, tossing off one stunning guitar solo after solo, all rooted in his idiosyncratic style that's one-part rockabilly, one-part rock and roll, one-part old country and one-part traditional English and Celtic music.

While his guitar playing might thrill us like-minded musicians and guitar connoisseurs, Thompson's unusually dark songs of love gone wrong, unattainable women, murder, losers, revenge and regret are where the real meat is, and "Electric" has plenty of those staples. The first song on this double-CD set, "Stony Ground," is typical Thompson, describing a widow's unwanted suitor who just can't take the word "no" for an answer, only to be left beaten and bleeding by the widow's thuggish friends by the end of the song.

"Widow's got a brother ... Henchmen, too ... A pair of gorillas from the London Zoo ... They call on Morris, and they tell him what's what ... But he can't keep his mind off her ********...Kicked him in the head, poked him in the eyes ... shoved him in the gutter, and there he lies ... Dripping with blood, dripping with snot ... But he can't keep his mind off her you-know-what..."

The song's melody, a cross between '50s' Chuck Berryesque -shuffle rock and an Irish jig is absolutely delightful, and Thompson's quirky irony and humor come through loud and clear.

Thompson's usual cast of characters are present, with the regretful lover looking back in "Salford Sunday"; the gleeful murder/serial killer of "Auldie Riggs"; the break-up song "Another Small Thing in Her Favour"; and the haunting revenge ballad "My Enemy," which is destined to become another Thompson classic. On "My Enemy," Thompson's protagonist becomes more than someone to be feared and hated, a relationship that morphs into a dysfunctional addiction the victim uses to overcome adversity:

"Did I slight you in some little way? ... Or does hate help you get through the day? ... One way or another, I'm glad your aim was so true ... If the demons in you hadn't jarred ... I never would have struggled so hard ... The only thing eating me now is what's eating you?

"Now we're just two old men on the brink ... Waiting for the other to blink ... If I should lose you, I'd be left with nothing but fate ... My Enemy ... Enemy ... How I need, my enemy..."

While this might not be a lot of people's cup of tea - there's no "moon, June, spoon" lyrics or really "contented" songs here - Thompson's unerring portraits of the darkness in the human heart ring true and can be deeply affecting.

The first disc ends with one of those great love songs only Thompson could write, a soul tortured by many failed relationships tinged with longing and regret at his past foolishness who finally finds peace with another human heart in "I'm Saving the Good Stuff for You." Heart-breaking with a rare touch of the autobiographical, I suspect.

The album's other musicians play with great support and empathy for Thompson's music, as fiddles, mandolins and accordions - many of them played by Thompson - pepper the music. By this time Thompson has a deep well of musicians he can draw from that understand his music. Also, bluegrass diva Allison Krauss makes an appearance singing harmonies here and there, and her angelic vocals blend well with Thompson's weathered and expressive baritone.

Richard Thompson is one of the smartest songwriters and most unique musicians Britain has ever produced, and "Electric" shows he's lost none of his deft touch.

- Willie Nelson and Family - "Let's Face the Music and Dance"

Good old Willie is going to be 80 this year, which doesn't mean much for the ultimate road warrior. Nelson's compulsion to perform and record has become even more pronounced in the past decade. No one works harder than Willie Nelson, and "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is another stellar collection of country, R&B, blues and jazz standards done in Nelson's typically laid-back, inimitable style. Willie Nelson has never been afraid to sing songs from any genre, and while most of us grow a little slower and set in our ways as we grow older, Nelson defies age.

Nelson opens up with the Irving Berlin-penned "Let's Face the Music and Dance," veers to the Carl Perkins-rockabilly classic "Matchbox" to the old country/jazz standard "Walking My Baby Back Home," stops "South of the Border," spends a little time with gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt's "Nuages" halfway home and wraps things up with a rollicking version of Spade Cooley's "Shame on You."

One of the most wonderful aspects of Nelson's adventurousness is his ability to take standards most would assume time has passed by and make them shiny and new again. "Let's Face the Music and Dance" also finds Willie's iconic vocals to be in as good of shape as when he was 40, while he also steps up and takes several inspired guitar solos, something he does live all the time but rarely in the studio.

"Let's Face the Music and Dance" finds Nelson as creative as ever and still one of the special artists of our time.

God bless Willie, no matter what he's smoking this week. The disc is set to be released April 16.

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