The only surprising thing about Richard Thompson’s new album, ‘Dream Attic’ is that it hasn’t been released on the English Heritage or National Trust labels. Of course, neither organisation operates a record label, as far as I know, but if they did, Thompson’s status as a full-blown ‘national treasure’ would surely guarantee him as their first recruit. He’s now been making solo albums for nearly 40 years and it’s difficult to remember a genuine turkey among them. He has steadily built a large army of dedicated fans (mainly men of a certain age, one suspects) for whom he can do little wrong. Where opinion divides, it is usually around the issue of whether his best live performances are those where he plays completely solo or those with a band.
With his latest album, we get the best of both worlds, or at least we do if we’re quick off the mark. ‘Dream Attic’ is available in what is presumably a limited run as a two-CD package, with one disc of band versions and one of largely solo acoustic demos. Thompson has been down this road before to some extent; the 1996 ‘You? Me? Us?’ double set featured an ‘electric’ disc and an ‘acoustic’ disc with a couple of duplications, but here we have all 13 songs in 2 distinct versions. Comparisons therefore become inevitable, but as someone who generally prefers the acoustic RT, I would concede that a few of the ‘rockier’ numbers do work better as band outings.
The conceit behind these ‘band’ versions is that they were recorded live at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall back in February. The band comprises Thompson himself (guitars, vocals) with Michael Jerome (drums, vocals),Taras Prodaniuk (bass, vocals), Pete Zorn (multi-instruments, vocals) and Joel Zifkin (electric violin, mandolin, vocals). It is, of course, unusual to record an album’s worth of new material in a live setting, but the performances are generally good and sometimes better than that. The band offer sympathetic support to Thompson and he responds with some incendiary electric guitar playing, particularly on the impressive ‘Crimescene’ and elsewhere.
The ‘Demos’ are also pretty good, though the songs that work best are the slower, ballad titles. Much has been made of Thompson’s caustic attack on Sting in ‘Here comes Geordie’, but like all his ‘comedy’ songs (‘I agree with Pat Metheny’, ‘Now that I am dead’ and so on) it’s a song that provokes a wry smile on the first few hearings, but after that goes largely unremarked. Frankly, poking fun at Sting is a bit like shooting fish in a bucket and Thompson can surely find worthier targets.
Sonically, the main departure is the inclusion of Joel Zifkin’s violin in the musical mix on the live album. As far as I can recall, Thompson seems to have avoided working with violinists for quite a while now, probably in order to avoid the inevitable echoes of Fairport Convention’s ‘Liege & Lief’-era sound but Zifkin is at least free of the folk fiddle clichés that Dave Swarbrick brought to Fairport’s table and concentrates on adding a little ‘colour’ to proceedings rather than trying to engage Thompson in high-speed, twiddly-diddly duels.
Even so, whilst there are some great songs on ‘Dream Attic’, it’s not an album for which I can offer unreserved praise. The problem for me lies with the arrangements, which sometimes seem to recycle the same old riffs that Thompson has regularly exhumed ever since he left Fairport. Only in the 90’s when he worked with Mitchell Froom at Capitol did he seem to leave most of that tired English folkery behind. For me, songs from those years like ‘Ghosts in the Wind’, ‘Beeswing’ and ‘Bathsheba smiles’ showed a breadth of imagination in their arrangements which is largely lacking here. It’s a pity because songs like ‘Crimescene‘ and ‘Stumble On’ are vintage Thompson and deserve a slightly more innovative approach. The one exception to all this is undoubtedly ‘Big Sun Falling in the River’ in which lyric, arrangement and instrumentation blend perfectly.
‘Dream Attic’ has garnered almost universal praise from all quarters, so I am clearly out of step with the majority viewpoint here. As I’ve said, for me, it’s another good, but not flawless, addition to the RT canon. Personally, I still prefer him solo and acoustic, but if he is going to work with a band, it would be nice to see someone else having a bit of input into the arrangements, offering a gleaming framework for his marvellous songs rather than just a backing band recycling folk-rock pleasantries from the early 1970’s.