Aco-founder of the pioneering British folk outfit Fairport Convention and a co-author, with not-yet-ex-wife Linda, of the harrowing breakup classic "Shoot Out the Lights," Richard Thompson has had a less eventful, though no less distinguished, solo career. His latest, "Front Parlour Ballads," is being billed, somewhat torturously, as his first all-original solo acoustic album, though it's technically not 100 percent acoustic (there's an electric bass), or solo (there's a percussionist), and diehards will recall that Thompson released an original all-acoustic album in 1996, as part of the plugged/unplugged double-disc "You? Me? Us?," which may or may not count.
"Front Parlour Ballads" pares Thompson's dueling musical affections -- for tart, high-spirited character studies and, less interestingly, for somewhat lugubrious love songs -- down to their essentials. Thompson excels at vinegary amorality tales, jauntily told: For all the comparisons to Dickens, he's really H.L. Mencken after a few months of therapy. The record-opening "Let It Blow" tells the tale of an Air New Zealand stewardess's ill-fated marriage to an aging star: "O he loved the pursuit and the romance / But the details were more of a chore / When the bride's veil lifted his mind soon drifted / At least that's what happened before." The stewardess winds up retreating Down Under, while the lothario, as no student of Thompson's oeuvre will be surprised to hear, turns his attentions to a novelty dancer from Penge.
Things can't help but go downhill from there, but even in its lesser moments, the disc is frequently something to marvel at: "Row, Boys, Row" uses galley slavery as a metaphor for record label servitude; "When We Were Boys at School" details the early days of a sociopath ("Swastikas and pentagrams / Flourished from his tender hands"); the narrator of "Should I Betray?" threatens to expose a worthless husband to his trusting wife ("She thought the leopard's spots were paint / . . . Kept hoping though the hope grew faint / That you were better bred").
"Ballads" careens between misanthropic mid-tempo ballads and slower, more pensive ones, usually about love and redemption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nobler "Ballads" gets, the duller it is. And while there's not a throwaway track on it, songs like "Cressida" and "Precious One," brief and low-key both, don't pack much of a wallop. Recorded in Thompson's Southern California garage, "Ballads" has a spare, immediate feel to it. Thompson's guitar playing is as agile and as resolutely unflashy as ever -- and that's saying something. Despite -- or maybe because of -- the presence of mandolins and accordions and occasional overdubs, it's about as straightforward an acoustic folk record as it's possible to find.
"Front Parlour Ballads" doesn't pretend to be anything but a pleasant experiment in home taping. Those missing the novelty and ambition of Thompson's past work will want to check out his infamous millennial project "1000 Years of Popular Music." Soon to be released on CD/DVD, it finds him tackling everything from 13th-century traditional ballads to a not-to-be-missed cover of "Oops! I Did It Again" that's as great -- and as profoundly strange -- as it sounds.