BY JENNIFER KELLY
Still, indeed. Richard Thompson has been at it for half a century and more than 40 albums. This one smokes, as always, with blistering guitar leads, igniting Celtic melodies and drones with a sputtering fuse of rock aggression. As in countless predecessors, there are lovely, misty British folk laments, that weave effortless witchery out of minor chords and modal progressions (“Josephine”). And it will be no surprise to long-term fans to discover bouts of crotchety humor (like Thompson’s send up of Amsterdam permissiveness in “Beatnik Walking”). With Still, Thompson delivers more of what has always made him worth seeking out – the fiery guitar, the carefully constructed songs, the burnished leather softness of a voice that has been murmuring in our ears since the 1960s.
Thompson recorded these 12 songs at Jeff Tweedy’s Loft in Chicago, bringing in finished compositions and laying them to tape in nine days. Nothing sounds rushed or unfinished, but there’s an immediacy to Still that’s close to live. “Patty Don’t You Put Me Down,” one of the disc’s country rockers, sounds like a barely tamed barroom brawl, its muscle-y guitar line striking like an uppercut through a heated chorus. “All Buttoned Up” is bluesier, but just as unpremeditated, its melody as freshly cut as butcher’s meat, still glistening with blood. The playing is intricate but without a hint of stress. Long-time bass player Taras Prodaniuk and drummer Michael Jerome keep up easily with tricky rhythms and sudden tempo changes. Jim Elkington (from Tweedy’s eponymous band, Brokeback and the Zincs) has the unenviable job of playing second chair to Thompson, but the dual guitars in “Josephine” speak in lovely mutual understanding.
Indeed, the musicianship is so uniformly good that you forget about it and allow yourself to be swept onward by the songs. Thompson is one of rock music’s great players, but he’s never been a show-off. You hear him in the interstices, and it’s gorgeous, but you don’t immediately grab for your air guitar.
There is one exception, maybe the weakest song on the album, but also the most interesting. That’s “Guitar Hero” where Thompson tries on the playing styles of his forebears — Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, Chuck Berry, James Burton, The Shadows — with startling verisimilitude. It’s the only time on the album when we’re asked, almost forced, to stop what we’re doing and admire Thompson’s skill. It’s impressive on its own terms, but even more so when you consider how for the rest of the album, virtuosity takes a back seat to musicianship. Richard Thompson is one of the best ever, and he’s got nothing to prove.
DOWNLOAD: “All Buttoned Up,” “Josephine” “Guitar Heroes”