To grossly paraphrase an old cliché, you can take an Englishman out of England, but you can't always make him dance to an American tune.
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On his new album, Still, British folk-rock forefather Richard Thompson teams with Wilco headmaster Jeff Tweedy as producer. But on the opening song, She Never Could Resist a Winding Road, Thompson sings of wanderlust and all the emotional wreckage left in its wake over a gentle melody that resembles a Celtic reverie.
The singer and guitarist has traveled this path before, on the brilliant Beeswing (which remains a favorite among his concert audiences). But Winding Road is more ragged. It dances and clangs more severely against its elegant framework, sounding less like a Wilco-inspired collaboration and more like a sage take on the folk-friendly experiments Thompson engaged in with Fairport Convention during the late '60s.
Tweedy approaches Still much in the same manner that Americana chieftain Buddy Miller approached production duties for 2013's equally fine album Electric for Thompson — meaning he steers clear of the main attraction to fashion a recording that is swiftly streamlined in its sense of songcraft, stylistically faithful to folk tradition without becoming mired in it, and spacious enough to let the roar of Thompson's still-potent guitar work loose. That alone makes Still a fine addition to a canon of arresting recordings that Thompson has released under his own name over the past three decades.
Life and love remain touchy subjects for Thompson on Still. Despite its ultra-Celtic title, Patty Don't You Put Me Down is a lean, guitar-dominated rumination on the kind of twisted romance that Thompson has become a scholar at writing about. "In your 10-watt world, it's beyond any pleasure you know," he sings with ample venom, "to stick your fingers in the socket and give yourself a glow."
Josephine reverses the tension into a largely acoustic reflection full of poetically dour detail, while No Peace, No End turns more topical ("In the big chess game, there is only one winner and it's always somebody else") with an electric rumble both unsettled and anthemic. The latter's monumental string-bending is expanded on in more playful fashion during Guitar Heroes, a medley-style ode that honors a bowler-full of stylistic innovators (from Django Reinhardt to The Shadows) before Thompson adds his two cents for a coda and proves himself a worthy disciple.
The killer, quite literally, is Dungeons for Eyes, a glance into a murderous soul now viewed by society with a puzzling acceptance. "How we forgive old rivalries half forgot," Thompson sings with learned desperation. "We smile as best we can, but I can't let it go." The guitar work is as stinging as the story line, yet in less than four exquisitely tense minutes, the storm passes and the song is complete.
How fitting it all seems: titling an album of such calculated restlessness and turmoil Still. That's Richard Thompson for you.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic