Saturday, March 31, 2012

Richard Thompson Covers: Beeswing

Mary Lou Lord: Beeswing


1952 Vincent Black Lightning and Beeswing both stand out on the Richard Thompson albums on which they originally appeared as acoustic ballads amidst mostly electric full-band songs. Mary Lou Lord covers both on her solo acoustic album Live City Sounds, but with very different results. She pushes her delivery of Vincent Black Lightning, and instead of sounding passionate, it sounds strident and forced. But Lord’s version of Beeswing is another matter. She sings this one with a restraint that perfectly conveys the sense of fragility that Thompson wrote about. The song seems to be set in modern times, but the female protagonist might as well be a gypsy girl from an old English folk song. Lord sings, “She was a rare thing/ Fine as a beeswing”, and you utterly believe her. The romance in the song must end, and Lord adds to her version some tolling chords at the end that bring out this sense of finality perfectly.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Richard Thompson Covers: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

Del McCoury Band: 1952 Vincent Black Lightning


Here we are again, at the altar of the "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." J. David wrote a great essay about the song earlier this year. But it wouldn't be right to let a week of Richard Thompson music race by without including the quintessential song about "an object that's British and romantic and mythological," as Thompson described it.

By virtue of composing "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," Thompson has been called "the man who wrote the best song about a motorcycle, despite never having owned one." It's hard to imagine the song played or sung by anyone else. Yet somehow, ten years after the original appeared on Thompson's 1991 album Rumour and Sigh, the Del McCoury Band managed to transform "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" from British ballad to a bluegrass standard. Mandolin, banjo and fiddle breaks replace sophisticated finger picking, and McCoury's bluegrass tenor supplants Thompson's British Isles baritone. There's also a minor lyric tweak -- the town down to which James and Red Molly did ride changes from Box Hill to Knoxville.

Like so many bluegrass legends, Del McCoury started his career as a sideman for Bill Monroe, but he didn't stay with the Bluegrass Boys for long. McCoury largely left music behind in the 1960s, occasionally playing mid-Atlantic bluegrass festivals while working fulltime in construction. McCoury shifted back to music fulltime in the 1990s, forming a band with his sons. As the group's popularity grew, Del and the boys collaborated with Steve Earle on his bluegrass CD, The Mountain. McCoury and Earle famously fell out, as McCoury tired of Earle's constant use of profanity -- "There's no room for vulgarity in bluegrass," McCoury reportedly complained. After The Mountain, McCoury's career took off. He was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry and became recognized as a standard bearer of modern bluegrass music.

"Black Lightning" is from the McCoury Band's 2001 album, Del and the Boys. "It's a song I really like to do," McCoury told a reporter. "It paints a picture." In 2002, the International Bluegrass Music Association's named it the Song of the Year, a feat Thompson celebrated on his website.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Richard Thompson Covers: The Great Valerio (II)

Maddy Prior/Martin Carthy: The Great Valerio


To offer up a decent Richard Thompson cover, I had to put on my thinking cap to recall a few songs that were at least as good as the originals from the triple threat (songwriter, guitarist, vocalist). So let’s first revisit 1974 when Richard and Linda Thompson released their first album together. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is now considered essential listening by the cult like fans who revere the Thompsons’ music. When it comes to music of inimitable beauty, they totally get it. That masterpiece album gave us plenty of great cuts that have been covered by many over the years, even though it arguably had some of the darkest music of their Thompsons’ career.

For an excellent cover of a song from that original album, I chose “The Great Valerio” as done by Maddy Prior and Martin Carthy (co-founders of the classic British folk-rock band, Steeleye Span). I looked for a cover where the covering artists make the song their own, adapt it to fit their style, and sculpt it into a rendition that might even perhaps surpass the original. The Great Valerio, of course, is a tightrope walker, and acrobat, and a great hero. But, Thompson in his unique way of crafting a song, draws us in when he wrote:

Fools who think they see the light,
Prepare to balance on the wire,
But we learn to watch together,
And feed on what we see above.

For an excellent tribute album with this and other great covers, check out the 1994 release called “Beat the Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson.” There are many super covers on this project from the likes of R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, Los Lobos, Graham Parker, Bob Mould, Blind Boys of Alabama, June Tabor, Dinosaur Jr., and others. You may actually discover some covers that you feel are rendered better than the originals, but I don’t want to get into that. However, let us know what you think of the album’s closer, Maddy and Martin's version of “The Great Valerio.” Do they truly get it too, or is it just another imitation?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Richard Thompson Covers: The Great Valerio

June Tabor: The Great Valerio


June Tabor’s arrangement of The Great Valerio has no rhythm track. Tabor sings the melody over a near-drone played on diatonic accordion, fiddle, and viola. So she gets very little help with the melody, and none with keeping time. For a singer, this is the equivalent of working without a net, and that is the point. The Great Valerio is about a tightrope walker who represents the courage in life that the watchers in the seats cannot find in their own lives. The song expresses a combination of wonder at his talent and sorrow at the failings of those on the ground. Tabor’s arrangement and her vocal capture this tension beautifully.

Richard Thompson Covers: Tear-Stained Letter

Patty Loveless: Tear-Stained Letter


Patty Loveless is an unlikely artist to cover Richard Thompson. For most of her career, Loveless has stuck to traditional country music fare -- not surprising given her classic country pedigree. She’s a distant cousin of Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle, and counted Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers as early career mentors. Loveless emerged as a hitmaker in the mid-1980s, part of the neo-traditionalist movement that also spawned Randy Travis, Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam, among others.

Her recording of “Tear-Stained Letter,” the opening track on her eighth release The Trouble with the Truth, represented the first time Loveless ventured outside the country mainstream for material. Thompson introduced "Tear-Stained Letter" on his 1983 album Hand of Kindness, his first post-Linda solo record. Five years later, Cajun singer Jo-El Sonnier scored an improbable country music hit with the song. Loveless's version was released in 1998, adding twang Sonnier's version lacked. Apparently in an attempt to further countrify the song, Loveless and her producer/husband Emory Gordy Jr. changed one of the song’s wittiest and most essential lines. Thompson's “My head was beating like a song from the Clash” became “My head was spinning just a little too fast.” It's not clear why that revision was made; Sonnier's version made the country top 10 with the Clash name check intact. Country fans who didn't know the Clash were just as unlikely to get the Arthur Murray reference, yet that remained. For those familiar with the original, the lyric update mars Loveless's interpretation.

Loveless returned to the Thompson songbook seven years later, covering “Keep Your Distance” on 2005's Dreamin' My Dreams. Loveless has put her recording career largely on hold the past few years, and the twin Thompson tracks remain the only non-country music songs in her catalog.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Richard Thompson Covers: When I Get To The Border

M. Ward & Zooey Deschanel: When I Get To The Border
[purchase dvd]

I’m a huge Richard Thompson fan, but I was surprisingly not excited about this theme. Maybe it is because I haven’t found a Thompson cover that I love as much as the original. Which is not to say that there aren’t many, many good ones. I found an article in which Thompson listed his 5 favorite covers of his songs, and he chose Bonnie Raitt’s cover of “Dimming of the Day” as his favorite—and it is good. Number 3 was Dinosaur, Jr.’s cover of “I Misunderstood,” which is very different from the original, and I almost wrote about that.

Instead, I picked this one, M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel’s version of “When I Get To The Border.” Deschanel was starring in a now forgotten movie called The Go-Getter, and Ward was doing the music. The director suggested that they sing a duet for the end credits, and they decided to do this cover. Ward and Deschanel apparently enjoyed themselves so much that they formed She & Him, released two albums and a Christmas album, and have toured together. I don’t think this song is commercially available, so the link above is to the DVD of the movie.

Apparently, Zooey Deschanel is a very divisive figure. Google her name, and you find as many sites hating her as you do fan sites. I’m a fan. I loved her in Elf and (500) Days of Summer, and I really enjoy her sitcom, New Girl. I understand those who find her cutesy and affected, but I’m charmed.

Her singing isn’t amazing, but it is similarly charming, and I like her voice and style more than a lot of artists that get more respect. And Ward does a pretty good job, too. So, their version of the song is enjoyable. But let’s be fair—Ward is no Richard Thompson, and Deschanel is no Linda Thompson. And the arrangement and instrumentation isn’t as interesting as the original, and the guitar playing isn’t as exciting, despite the fact that Nels Cline, the innovative guitarist from Wilco (and more experimental solo/group recordings) is credited on the track. It is, in the end, a good cover, not a great cover, of a great, generally unappreciated song.

Of course, great, unappreciated songs are pretty much all that Richard Thompson writes. This one, from 1974, is the first song on the first album credited to Richard and Linda Thompson, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. It is an incredible album, and the song discusses a pretty bleak life, with hope existing at the border, which, I think, but am not sure, is the edge of heaven. When the narrator gets there he finds a “dusty road that smells so sweet/ Paved with gold beneath my feet” and states, “I’ll be dancing down the street.” My interpretation fits with this quote from Thompson--"If you don't believe in anything beyond the solidity of this world, then the world is a terrible place...There's no victory in this world in the end; all you can do is get out of it." (Rolling Stone -- April 5, 1979). Personally, I don’t agree with this philosophy, but I also don’t think that you need to agree with a song to like it.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Richard Thompson Covers: House of Cards

Robert Plant: House of Cards


Richard Thompson and Robert Plant were born about a year apart (Plant being slightly the older – ’48 & ‘49). At first blush, one wouldn't likely group them together. In popular memory, Robert Plant, through his association with Led Zeppelin, calls up images of the rough and tumble rock scene. Thompson may date to the same era, but the popular image of Thompson/Fairport Convention is of a softer aspect of the rock scene of the late 60s/early 70s.

Granted, Richard Thompson certainly earned acclaim for his electric guitar work early on, but – as boyhowdy has noted – his religious conversion and his “sheik’s” influence did tone down his proclivity toward heavier rock. All the same, both are products of the same British rock scene.

For my part, I see trends in Plant’s authoring of Stairway to Heaven that pre-sage an affinity to the softer music of Thompson’s House of Cards. Band of Joy, Plant’s off and on ensemble, provides a great hard-hitting balance to this song –it causes one to think about the lyrics, yet cuts through the folk to the rock. The song has been interpreted in folk style by many, but the lyrics deserve the roughness of Plant’s (and Band of Joy’s) interpretation.

Shake your windows/ rattle your doors . . .
Cracked and shaking/ days are numbered . . .

Curiously, there are numerous others who have penned songs of the same name, generally with the same conceit – after all, what is a house of cards made of?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Richard Thompson Covers: The Dimming Of The Day

Mary Black: The Dimming Of The Day


I'm cheating a little here, posting a cover which I've handled recently. But I suppose sharing it is a sort of penance, at that. Because although Mary Black's sort of folk music once turned saccharine in my ears, I've recently come around to the Irish siren, even posting a full-fledged feature on her long career at the top of the Irish trad-pop scene over at Cover Lay Down.

And now that I've come around, of all the covers of this song I carry in a coverblogger's collection, this one stands out, even among classic takes from Bonnie Raitt and, more recently, a Grammy-winning Alison Krauss. Something about the purity of Black's voice at the height of its potency, and how perfectly the full orchestral ebb, sway, and pulse of her everpresent production carries it into the depths of the universal core. Something about how the fluid calm builds into the emotional storm, crashing like thunder, flashing like rain. Something about the sadness of a song of longing, written and first performed by a married couple whose narrative of commitment belied a storm of their own, once which would eventually tear them apart.

The Dimming of the Day has always been one of my favorite songs from Richard and Linda Thompson. And it's especially poignant if you consider that it springs from a time when they were both deeply searching for themselves, their relationship already fracturing, held together mostly by the power of their own music.

Richard Thompson Covers : Withered And Died

Elvis Costello : Withered And Died


It is believed that Elvis Costello recorded "Withered And Died" as an apology to Richard Thompson. He had Thompson waiting in the wings to play on his 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World but it never happened. So before the album was released Costello, credited as "The Imposter", released his cover of the I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight track as a B-Side to his UK #48 single "Peace In Our Time". That single was probably the best thing Costello did all year. Seriously. To those who purchased the 1995 Rykodisc reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello wrote in the liner notes : "Congratulations! You just bought the worst album of my career!"

Richard Thompson Covers: Crazy Man Michael

Three Quarter Ale: Crazy Man Michael


Richard Ruane: Crazy Man Michael


So here we are in a week of Richard Thompson covers, and the first song is Crazy Man Michael. Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, isn’t that a traditional tune?” And my answer is, not anymore. The melody certainly reflects Fairport Convention’s devotion to the traditional music of Britain, and the text shows just how well steeped in traditional lore Richard Thompson was in 1969. But what happened was this. Fairport was always on the lookout for interesting songs, and Thompson was inspired to create a new lyric to a traditional melody. That lyric was the one you hear in this post. But, when Thompson brought the resulting song to the band, David Swarbrick thought the song needed a new melody, and that is the song we hear now. So, born of a traditional melody, Crazy Man Michael wound up being an entirely original work.

The next question is, “is Michael really crazy?” A literal reading of the lyric would seem to indicate as much, but there is a suggestion of sorcery. Perhaps, Michael is under a spell, or perhaps his lover is. The words of the raven would seem to belong to a third party, a vengeful sorceror or a wronged goddess perhaps. I’m sure Richard Thompson knew the lore of ravens when he wrote the lyric; the raven in British lore represents a goddess or spirit who collects the spirits of warriors slain in battle. These ambiguous elements in the lyric probably explain the song’s appeal to other artists. Three Quarter Ale performs it in a way that emphasizes the magical elements, and brings a dark fairy tale quality to the song. Nature, in this reading, is an emotional funhouse mirror, twisting and distorting the intent of the human heart. Richard Ruane, who now leads the band Bread and Bones, focuses on Michael’s state of mind. At times, the background vocal and the bass line seem almost out of synch with the rest of the song, as Michael’s sanity waxes and wanes. Ruane also perfectly captures the haunted quality of both the lyric and the melody.