- The Washington Times - Monday, May 28, 2007

Richard Thompson

Sweet Warrior

Shout Factory

The drab cover, the military allusions in the artwork and even the title, “Sweet Warrior,” all portend protest songs from Richard Thompson, alternative folk-rock’s elder statesman.

Mr. Thompson delivers, as promised, an adrenaline-charged throbbing rocker against American involvement in Iraq, “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me.” In this song of uncertainty told from the soldier’s point of view, “Dad” is short for Baghdad.

The disc’s title, though, comes not from the soldier’s story, but from an Edmund Spenser sonnet reprinted inside the booklet. The warriors here, for the most part, are men and women engaged on the chaotic battlefield of love.

The antiwar song no doubt will garner some notice for its line, “at least we’re winning on the Fox Evening News.” It is predictable and merely clever, perhaps the weakest of the 14 songs on the disc, Mr. Thompson’s first electrified recording since 2003’s “The Old Kit Bag.”

The song that follows “Dad,” titled “Poppy Red,” is by contrast deep and poetic, with an infectious melody built around oscillating scales. It rewards listeners with its half-tone increments and other musical surprises as it tells of a lover’s death and the singer’s sad memories.

Mr. Thompson is a master song craftsman, a founding member of the British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, whose thick catalog wisely borrows from traditional themes.

His unique style of lead guitar, which relies heavily on folk-influenced finger picking, veers perilously close to the edge in several of these songs, though. It’s entertaining and unpredictable, a style that relies almost exclusively on attack and hardly acknowledges the concept of sustain.

In his ballad of unrequited love, “Take Care the Road You Choose,” Mr. Thompson establishes a rich, if languorous melody line and then practically noodles it into another song during the instrumental break.

“Francesca,” with its reggae-inspired beat, asks rhetorically who was responsible for turning a lovely young woman into a prostitute.

In “Johnny’s Far Away,” a rocking jig featuring a guest appearance by Nickel Creek fiddler Sara Watkins, Mr. Thompson sings of marital indiscretions involving a touring Celtic musician and his wife. All is forgiven when Johnny comes home and “charms her with eleven battered roses.”

Mr. Thompson’s sense of humor is evident in what will no doubt be the two crowd pleasers during his 20-date June tour, at the Bonnaroo festival July 15, and in a fall tour planned to commence in September.

In “Mr. Stupid,” he recounts a bitter divorce hearing in which he promises not to speak out and risk offending the judge, but to “act just as dumb, dear, as you really think I am.” The refrain draws on simian and circus imagery to great effect: “Bring the crowd and laugh out loud, Mr. Stupid’s back in town.”

A bad relationship also is key to yet another song that invokes lower primates and carnival images, “Bad Monkey,” in which the singer advises a woman not to fall prey to her lover’s mood swings. This tune also incorporates a reckless guitar lead that very nearly wanders into another key before returning home.

Mr. Thompson revisits the warrior theme in the penultimate track, “Guns are the Tongues,” the story of Carrie, a black widow-like character who uses her wiles to cultivate guerrilla fighters, and Little Joe, her latest victim who is killed by a car bomb.

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