Throughout his long and distinguished discography -- five studio albums with British folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention, six extraordinary efforts with his then-wife Linda, a strong five-album solo run on Capitol from 1988 through 2001, and several consistently rewarding indie efforts since -- Richard Thompson has been the rare '60s musical legend whose powers have never diminished: not as a songwriter with a novelist's eye for social observation, not as a rich baritone vocalist who can move you to tears with the homely beauty of his voice, and not as one of the most melodic and inventive guitarists the British Isles ever have produced.
Even by his own high standards, however, the 62-year-old musical treasure surprises longtime fans with the new "Dream Attic," as powerful a solo set as he's given us since either of his previous bests, "Henry the Human Fly" (1972) or "Rumor and Sigh" (1991). The only legitimate knock that anyone ever has been able to make on Thompson is that his studio efforts haven't always matched the intensity of his live performances: The six-string epic "The Cavalry Cross" merely is incredible on Richard and Linda's 1974 album "I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight." Onstage, it is nothing short of mind-blowing and transcendent.
Here, Thompson hit upon an idea that's so simple, it seems as if it should have been obvious decades ago. Armed with a set of 13 impressive new songs (including a devastating attack on Bernie Madoff-like money men called "The Money Shuffle," a Jim Thompson noir novel in song called "Crimescene," the emotional epic "Among the Gorse, Among the Grey," and a digital-age murder ballad called "Sidney Wells") and one of the most accomplished and empathetic bands of his career (including Pete Zorn on guitar and sax, Joel Zifkin on violin and mandolin, Michael Jerome on drums, and Taras Prodaniuk on bass), he recorded each of a seven-night run of shows on the West Coast early this year, then picked the best live recordings of all of the new tunes to comprise this disc.
Aside from the occasional snippet of applause, "Dream Attic" doesn't play like a live album. Nor does it come off as a gimmicky way to release a new set of material. It simply sounds like Thompson at his very best, which is saying a heck of a lot. If you're familiar with his rich catalog, you'll know what I mean. And if you aren't, this is as great a place to start as any.
Richard Thompson, "Dream Attic" (Shout Factory) Rating:4/4