Thursday, November 10, 2005

Josh's Listening Journal, 11/10

I'm still trying to make up my mind about Front Parlour Ballads, the latest release from Richard Thompson.

An all-acoustic album, Ballads is a pleasant change of pace from Thompson's louder, rowdier rock albums-- like 1999's excellent Mock Tudor. It's a more gentle, laid-back affair, and a perfect showcase for Thompson's always-impressive guitar work.

In fact, that's both the album's greatest strength and its ultimate downfall. On the one hand, there's some truly remarkable musicianship on display here, and the acoustic setting gives Thompson more room to show off his impressive range, both as a guitarist and as a vocalist. And his lyrics are, as usual, first rate; the spare arrangements only serve to further highlight his graceful wit.

And yet, I can't help but feeling like maybe the musicianship here is too good. Many of these songs feel so calculated and choreographed that they smack of dullness-- something that's rarely been a problem for Thompson in the past. There's little in the way of spontaneity or improvisation, and, since Thompson plays just about everything himself, there's nothing in the way of chemistry between musicians. Furthermore, there are a few tracks here-- particularly the opener, "Let it Blow"-- that just beg for full-band rock arrangements. One wonders if some of this material would have been better if saved for Thompson's next electric album.

There are more then enough memorable tracks here to make Ballads well worth hearing. Personally, though, I keep wanting to go back to Mock Tudor-- one of the finest rock albums released by a solo artist in the 1990s, and the definite highpoint of latter-day Richard Thompson.

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