Last year's "Shoot Out the Lights" by British folk-rockers Richard and Linda Thompson was one of those rare albums that crown a career by fitting all an artist's talents and ambitions into one perfect puzzle. Richard Thompson's new solo album, "Hand of Kindness" (Hannibal HNLP 1313), doesn't repeat that triumph, but it does contain the revitalized folk traditions, the brilliant guitar work and the memorable songwriting one expects from Thompson.
"Shoot Out the Lights" and its ensuing tour marked the end of Richard Thompson's personal and professional partnership with his wife, Linda. Her absence haunts "Hand of Kindness" musically and lyrically. Though Richard Thompson has a husky Dylan-esque growl that's quite dramatic, it's less effective without Linda Thompson's clear, lyrical soprano as contrast.
On the new album, Thompson emphasizes John Kirkpatrick's accordion and concertina as a "second voice" on most songs. Kirkpatrick's instrumentals take as much from Louisiana cajun as from celtic folk music, but his high, buoyant tone counterbalances Thompson's raspy vocals.
On three songs, Thompson describes a woman he loves but can't quite get along with; on three others, he describes coping with a wrenching breakup; on the other two, he describes finding a new love on the rebound. Fortunately, he avoids the temptations of recriminations and self-pity, managing a detached perspective even as he digs into intensely personal feelings.
On the album opener, Thompson mocks himself good-naturedly: "Cry, cry, if it makes you feel better/ Set it all down in a tear-stained letter," he sings as the band saws through a jaunty folk dance tune. On the album closer, he pokes fun at the reasons couples break up; he crows, "I love you, honey, you're so sweet/ But I can't stand them two left feet" as the band plays a fast, fractured square dance. The rhythm section--Thompson's fellow Fairport Convention alumni Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks--build a breezy but insistent momentum that tugs these songs away from moping melancholy.
Thompson faces up to the pain of breakup, though, on two stunning songs that address fate and express the exasperated "why?" that so many parted lovers feel. "How I Wanted To (Say I Loved You)" is a brooding ballad that ponders an awkward parting and the many things left unsaid. Thompson's droning baritone is not so much sad or angry as it is mystified that he never said what he meant. While his vocal considers this lost chance, Thompson's electric guitar slowly but surely unfurls in long, elegant lines that press on as relentlessly as time. On the album's darkest song, he details the bleakness of post-divorce bachelorhood and achingly asks the fates: "Is this the way it's supposed to be/ A poisoned heart and a twisted memory?"
A more hopeful outlook comes through on the album's title cut, "The Hand of Kindness." Over a lean, sharp rock arrangement, Thompson addresses a new woman he's dating and pleads, "O stranger, stranger/ It don't do to waste time./ You stretch out your hand;/ I stretch out mine." Yet Thompson undercuts this optimism with stabbing, ominous guitar solos that seem to warn that any relationship is imperiled. As on every song, Thompson disdains the easy solutions to difficult problems and keeps every song suspended in the contradictions of life. Drawing on the rich resources of Anglo-American folk music, he evokes not a nostalgia for a supposedly simpler past but the timeless contradictions of human beings in love.
Richard Thompson plays guitar and mandolin on two songs from Loudon Wainwright III's ninth album, "Fame and Wealth" (Rounder 3076). This is his first studio album in five years, and Wainwright revives his old schtik of disguising stand-up comedy as folk song. He exaggerates the mundane and the base to hilarious proportions, celebrates watching cartoons on "Saturday Morning Fever," groveling in lust on "Ingenue" and reveling in escapist fantasy on "The Grammy Song." "Fame and Wealth," however, reveals another side of Wainwright's songwriting: autobiographical reflections that don't paper over contradictions with jokes but let them rub against each other uncomfortably. "I Don't Think That Your Wife Likes Me" describes the premise of the title, but instead of a punchline Wainwright allows the mistrust between a husband's wife and his best friend to fester. The fortune-teller in "Reader and Advisor" is the perfect set-up for a joke, but Wainwright instead sings about his fears for the future and his obsessive need to know. His doubts are underscored by Thompson's slow, ominous electric guitar and high, anxious mandolin. "April Fool's Day Morn" is a long, marvelously detailed description of an all night drunk, held together by Thompson's guitar picking and the singer's drunken thoughts on his mother.
Wainwright performs eight of the album's 12 songs with just voice and guitar, which properly constrict the focus to his lyrics. He doesn't have a particularly musical voice, but it's effective for his purposes: comically exaggerated on the broad songs and flatly understated on the darker numbers.