Richard Thompson – Ship to Shore LP

by | May 11, 2024 | 0 comments

Richard Thompson has been hammering and nailing together a sturdy and diverse musical career for almost sixty years.  A scholar of song and collector of disparate melody, Thompson’s expansive musical journey started in the 1960’s with Fairport Convention, moved into the 1970’s as a duo with his former wife Linda, and has spanned a 20-album solo career. His influences non discernable from his own afflatus. Thompson acts as the captain of his ship and master of ceremonies constantly casting lines into dark seas for dogeared hymn books, shared sea shanties, and even 20th century pop to compare with his own musical acumen.

His newest and twentieth album titled, Ship to Shore will be released by New West Records on May 31, 2024, and like all of Thompson’s recording projects is a culmination and a revelation. It’s a welcome return to the electric guitar for Thompson who has played primarily acoustic concerts since the pandemic. With a band comprised of long-time collaborators, drummer Michael Jerome, bassist Taras Prodaniuk, guitarist Bobby Eichorn, David Mansfield on fiddle and Thompson’s partner Zara Phillips on harmony vocals the album is welcome full band recording from the Thompson crew.

Thompson appears like he’s seen some things he’s rather not discuss on the album’s cover portrait where two seagulls are perched upon his weary seafaring shoulders. Thompson said in 2024 about Ship to Shore, “I liked the idea of having a strong base to work from and reaching out from there. And I think of my base as being British traditional music, but there’s also Scottish music, there’s Irish music. There’s jazz and country and classical. As far as I’m concerned, once you establish your base you can reach out anywhere. It’ll still be ringing through, wherever you decide to go musically”. This statement is reflected in Thompson’s new collection of songs where from his sturdy base genres are referenced and discarded, influence is noted and parsed, and the results are what make the music on the record so uniquely Richard Thompson.

It’s music for mature listeners, and music lovers that get jokes. Deadly serious, slyly funny, and always stunningly relevant, Thompson has never needed a career renaissance. His natural course has always been the right one resulting in a steady as she goes, no holds barred career in music.

Ship to Shore is imbued with Richard’s characteristic stringy and shape shifting guitar riffing. But it’s the storytelling that completes the portrait.  Lyrically Ship to Shore imitates the usual typical Thompson analysis of the human condition. Heavy and truthful themes of aggressive lovers and lost hopes expressed through evocative imagery and intelligent wordplay.

The title says it all, the album is a journey, following a compass point across the water, the songs thematically connected by a frayed rigging lines. There is the anxiety of the unknown and the excitement of the voyage. The guitar playing is excitable, tasteful and the perfect Thompson mixture of improvisation and carefully crafted and orchestrated movements. I am listening to the two LP version of the record which features three full sides of music.

Side one begins with the compelling opener, “Freeze,” a song previously reviewed by the “rock room” here. “The Fear Never Leaves You,” follows and combines a sweetly melodic framework with a tribal paranoid foreboding. A stunning song that features the best elements of the album.

“Singapore Sadie,” was the first single released from the record and has been a mainstay of Thompson’s current solo acoustic setlists. A classic character study the song is a deft combination of a multifaceted Thompson protagonist and her beauty calmly sketched out by Mansfield’s fiddle line gliding just above the water line. Side one closes with the popping repurposed Bo Diddley beat of “Trust,” where Thompson quips “Romance is overrated,” against a round rhythm that never seems to resolve its internal tension.

Side two of the record begins with “The Day that I Give In,” a delicately beautiful Thompson melody that wafts in on a salty breeze and brushes against past glories. The song is set adrift on the ebbing verses that rise and then fall on the narrator’s reluctant resignation. One of the most beautiful songs of the collection.

“The Old Pack Mule,” lies dead in the center of the record. It stomps like hooves on gravel, Thompson’s ship has made land fall. The songs hard dramaticism is smoothed by its serpentine changes. A villain peers from around a tree in the dusty town square.  There is a gentle curvature to the melody, even as the townspeople gather round the perished mule to battle over the last bit of meat. The symbolism is vivid and a hunger tangible, a watermark of Thompson’s best songs.

“Turnstile Casanova,” is a straight up rocker that contains a tasty main lick that pushes and pulls against the 4/4 drumbeat. Thompson’s slightly overdriven riffing recalling several of his instantly recognizable guitar lines. The following “Lost In the Crowd,” is the closing song on side B, a track of blurry defeat. The music reflecting the inability to connect and the hard acceptance of it.

The final side of the record spotlights Thompson at the helm for stellar guitar work and begins with the jumpy syncopation of “Maybe,” a hopeful number where Thompson wonders what perfect probabilities will have to happen to connect with a certain woman. Both “Maybe,” and the earlier “Turnstile Casanova,” recall past Thompson glories like “Valerie,” and “Cooksferry Queen,” where the central female characters are the axis of concern.

“Life’s a Bloody Show,” and “What’s Left to Lose” play like a matched pair though “Bloody Show,” has the fingerprints of a jazz club on the rim of its glass. Cloudy, quivering guitar highlights the most uniquely constructed song on the record. “What’s Left to Lose,” leaves the opportunity for improvisation on a live stage open as Thompson digs into his guitar lines while expressing the inevitability of loss. This sense of loss is contrasted with the more contemporary pop elements of the track.

The album’s closer, “We Roll,” is a rare autobiographical glimpse into Thompson’s life on the road. Tracing his walk from a beat-up stage door to the next town with hard guitar case in hand, the song follows white lines and passes toll bools on a gentle country lilt decorated with vibrato guitar and moaning fiddle. A proper statement and finale as Thompson will indeed continue to roll.

Richard Thompson’s creativity is rooted in consistency and work. His bearing is always adjusted by the conditions he faces.  Always one step ahead of his own ideas and in turn, his listeners, Thompson’s work requires time to marinate. Once it has soaked in, it reveals layers of beauty and nuance not always discernable upon first glimpse. Ship to Shore allows this time for contemplation as its contents are signposts on a journey through time and space, moving through rough waters and eventually landing on solid ground.

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