A DECADE AFTER the genre faded from popularity, Richard & Linda Thompson have released one of the strongest folk-rock albums of all time: "Shoot Out the Lights" (Hannibal). It's a welcome reminder of that genre's assets: a connection to the patience and lessons of the past employing the technologies and crises of the present. As their first American album in four years, "Shoot Out the Lights" is also a welcome reminder of the talents of this British husband and wife team. They appear at Desperado's tonight as part of their first American tour together.
Richard Thompson's eight compositions (one written with his wife) are filled with dark threats. In "Don't Renege on Our Love," he warns: "When my heart breaks, it breaks like the weather. If you leave me now, it'll thunder for ever." "Walking on a Wire" is about a relationship balancing precariously. "Just the Motion" uses the metaphor of seasick rocking to describe a relationship trying to stay afloat. All the songs detail the rocky struggles of daily life, but strongly imply that such struggles are necessary.
Several other songs also point out the cost of avoiding such struggle. "Shoot Out the Lights" is a dark and dangerous song about someone who avoids pain and trouble as he avoids light: by carrying a gun to shoot out the lamps. "A Man in Need" is the self-damning tale of a husband fleeing his family. "Backstreet Slide" traces the back-yard route of slander. Thompson clearly believes you can't avoid painful struggle unless you avoid life itself. He himself wants to ride on "The Wall of Death." "You can waste your time on other rides," he sings, "but this is the nearest to being alive."
The music fully supports these complex lyrical themes. Richard Thompson is joined by three other Fairport Convention alumni: guitarist Simon Nicol, drummer Dave Mattacks and bassist Dave Pegg. They provide good support, but it's Thompson's electric lead guitar that gives the songs their necessary threat. When he warns his lover not to "renege on our love," his guitar flashes quickly like a warning and then pauses tellingly to let it sink in. His guitar sound is so pin-point sharp that it sounds like a knife--or the bullet from "Shoot Out the Lights." As Linda Thompson sings high and carefully about "Walking on a Wire," Thompson's churning, grinding guitar below represents the dangers if she should fall. By contrast, his slow, fluid guitar lines on "Just the Motion" make it clear where guitar whiz Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits got much of his phrasing.
Richard Thompson sings lead in his gruff, barking baritone on the album's three up-tempo rockers. He shares the vocals with his wife's lush soprano on two mid-tempo songs. Linda Thompson sings lead on the three ballads, which are the album's strongest numbers. Her husband writes sterling melodies, but you never know it until her rich voice flushes them out. As Linda Peters, she was a good friend of Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny, and Thompson still sings with the late Denny's compelling sense of fatefulness. On "Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?" Linda Thompson's vocal goes beyond sentimentality with such steady determination that finally it doesn't matter what the answer is. She takes such risks--by hitting every note with a precise trill--that she gives "Walking on a Wire" just the right feel.
Lest we forget that folk-rock is also capable of self-indulgent, boring records, John Martyn has released "Glorious Fool" (Duke). Like Thompson, Martyn emerged in the late-'60s British folk-rock scene. Like Thompson, Martyn is a talented guitarist who sometimes appeared in a duo with his wife, Beverley. Unlike Thompson, Martyn has never been much of a songwriter and has seldom shown any restraint in his arrangements.
"Glorious Fool" doesn't feature Beverley Martyn, but it does star Genesis' Phil Collins as drummer, backing singer and producer for Duke Records, Genesis' new custom label. For some strange reason, the drums and synthesizers are often louder than the guitar and vocals on what is supposed to be Martyn's record. The 11 songs include both new compositions and old favorites from the Martyn catalogue reinterpreted by his new quartet. Both Martyn and Collins mistake spacey vagueness for profundity, and working together they compound the problem. "Glorious Fool" is full of bleary songs cluttered with Collins' dizzy rhythm tracks and bogged down by Martyn's shapeless singing. If this is folk-rock, it combines the repetitiveness of folk with the gimmickry of rock.