E# is a composer and multi-instrumentalist living in New York City. Besides writing music for Hilary Hahn, RadioSinfonie Frankfurt, JACK Quartet, and the Ensemble Modern, he performs solo and with his bands Terraplane, Carbon, and Aggregat. He has collaborated with Hubert Sumlin, Debbie Harry, Christian Marclay, and Bachir Attar and is the subject of the recent documentary Doing the Don’t.
The title alone: simple, direct, and loud. Electric. It gets me. But then all of Richard Thompson’s titles have a quality that hooks and holds you and makes you want to listen: From Henry the Human Fly, Strict Tempo, Amnesia, 1000 Years of Popular Music and more, it’s a litany of essentials. I’ve followed Thompson since the days of Fairport Convention and long appreciated the passion and intelligence of his songwriting and the mastery of his acoustic accompaniment, but overall, one of the great thrills is in hearing him play electric guitar. Even without the wrenching songs and singing, Shoot Out the Lights remains a high-water mark of this inseparable amalgam of emotion and praxis. Throughout, Thompson’s guitar provides the apotheosis, a pure distillation of feeling. Electric.
As a bard, Thompson personifies the stories he tells, inhabiting the characters or confiding his first-person observations, whether in a croon or with a snarl. On Electric he displays the detachment of the storyteller effortlessly riffing and slinging every word in its inevitable place, the unexpected turn of phrase, the poetic allusion. Various strategies frame and set up the songs, some lyrical, some sonic. Yet when sung in the first person, his songs display a devastating emotional range that transcends the vehicle and plants the listener into a deeply personal zone.
The record opens with “Stoney Ground,” a ribald tale of lust, degradation, and punishment which begins with an exhilarating intro: tricky counting that plunges us into the deepest groove, British Isles in its provenance, by way of West Africa. The mandocello’s unusual sweet and plummy tone catches the ear then rings throughout “Salford Sunday” and its stinging self-rebuke. “Another Small Thing in Her Favor” reiterates the telling humor in the title line, all the better to reveal the tenderness underlying the song’s recognition of love’s loss. “Sally B” is an agitated paean to a beautiful icon — is she loved or loathed? The distorted bass flies up in a range that should have been banned forever thanks to the fusion excesses of the 70’s but here provides a perfect angry counterpoint to Thompson’s voice and guitar with instrumental passages harking back to the ’60s in the best way and bringing to mind the interplay between Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen in the glory days of the Jefferson Airplane or Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce in Cream — without the self-indulgence. There’s a touch of Beefheartian tangle and jazzy excursions underpinning the desperation in “Stuck on the Treadmill.” Throughout the album Thompson dwells in the beauty of his craft (and that does not necessarily mean it’s “pretty”!): the guitar fire and intricacies, the voice with its burr and smoke, controlled whether harsh or soft, the masterful architecture of these tales.
The record is well served by Buddy Miller’s production. He knows songs and he knows guitars. There is clarity when you want it but nothing hits you in the gut better than the sound of drums slamming into 456 recording tape. Tape gets guitars, too, in a way that digital recording often does not — they become chewy and savory, sonic umami. The incredible tactility of the audio reinforces the notion that this is a group of musicians playing together in a room. There may be ProTooling and whatnot after the fact, but no digital trickery will obscure the syncretic blend of overtones reinforcing each other in a room.
Finally, though, it comes down to Richard Thompson and his electric guitar. The solo reveals the inner soul of its player in a fundamental interaction of meat on metal and wood, a few wires and magnets, some electrons. And with Thompson, this medium is often a Fender Stratocaster — in my estimation, the “queen of guitars.” Investment bankers and fetishists may obsess for hours over their prized and overpriced, aged pieces but Thompson shows the reason that a battered old Strat has real value (though I wager that you could give him a $99 factory import off the rack and it would still sound just like himself — the soul is in the person, not the equipment). The Stratocaster is not an easy-playing instrument — you must commit to strangling the life out of it or caressing it like Curtis Mayfield and it rewards you with a most vocal of protests, sweet and lyrical sighs, or a vicious, biting grind. And more importantly, the Strat fights back. Sweat equity. When the first solo in “Stoney Ground” begins, I sat stunned as my ears filled with the sound of a man standing at the abyss and throwing himself off with abandon. The guitar is juicy with texture, alive with notes that bend and ring and cannot be named. Shifting modes over a drone revel in the entire history and odyssey of the guitar from ancient quitra and tar through oud, lute, and then home and now. Richard Thompson plays it and it is electric.