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THE PLUNGE, WITHOUT THE GRUNGE : Richard Thompson Could Teach '90s Bands a Thing or Two About Obsession and Drear

March 17, 1994|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Like just about every performer who comes out of a folk tradition, Richard Thompson knows the value of mixing it up on stage with varied shadings of light and dark, comic and tragic, silly and somber.

But what if the critically lauded British folk rocker, who made his recording debut in 1968 with Fairport Convention, started doing things the '90s way, following the lead of bands such as Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden, whose palette of moods spans the spectrum from wretchedness to misery?

As a far more vivid spinner of narrative than any of the above (actually, a 7-year-old at show-and-tell is probably a more vivid spinner of narrative than most '90s bands), and a far more poetic plumber of bleakness, Thompson could wreak some serious depression on a concert crowd if he chose to hold back his comic Muse and unleash only his Furies.

"I've never done it," Thompson said over the phone recently from Boulder, Colo., where he was laying promotional groundwork for his new album, "Mirror Blue."

"I get the terrible feeling that the audience would really like it."

Thompson, who will have a band with him when he plays at the Coach House on Friday, bases that assessment on experimentation at a few solo-acoustic shows last year, when he invited fans to write down song titles and picked them out at random. There were long stretches of the bleak stuff, Thompson said--longer than he would have inflicted left to his own devices. "It's very worrying," he said with typical wry detachment. "I think there's a whole kind of Leonard Cohen drear beckoning."

Thompson's new album, a middling effort by his own lofty standards, offers an array of obsessive characters ranging from the comically addled misfits and cranks of the lighter numbers to the poignant or nearly unhinged protagonists of his dark dramas. There's the misanthropic burger flipper of "Fast Food," who spits such lines as "I'd rather feed pigs than humanity." Thompson says he drew on firsthand experience for that one: a long-ago job waiting tables in a cafe at the London Zoo. "I was struck by how nicely the animals used to eat their food and how disgusting the human beings were," he recalled.

In the album's most beautiful song, "Beeswing," a free-spirited daughter of the hippie era clings to an unsparing ideal of freedom and independence but pays a ruinous cost for it.

If Thompson keeps telling tales of the romantically obsessed or the criminally crazed, it's because those are the characters whose stories he finds most vivid. He says the attraction began when he was a youth raiding the bookshelves of his dad, a Scotland Yard detective.

"He was a real crime buff, and he had shelves and shelves of books. Being home and being bored, I'd read whatever was on the bookshelf. I read a lot of criminology, a lot of Robert Burns and Walter Scott. There's a reason songs glorify criminals: They're a challenge to the repressive elements in society. They often are folk heroes, representing the working class standing up for themselves and overthrowing the establishment and making fun of it. Also, people on the edge (make good subjects) because they're a little insane and under extreme circumstances. It's a situation where people are more likely to reveal what's underneath."

In addition to his first-rank skills as a lyrical portrait painter and mood setter, Thompson is a passionate, idiosyncratic singer and an accomplished, even more idiosyncratic guitarist. His music is grounded in the troika of key influences he heard as a youngster: American roots rockers, traditional British folk music and jazz sources such as Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt. Middle Eastern sources also began to enter the picture in the 1970s, when Thompson converted to Islam.

His first band, Fairport Convention, based its first efforts on early American rock 'n' roll before moving on to its signature melding of rock with British folk (Thompson's current touring band includes former Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks, as well as bassist Danny Thompson--no relation--and multi-instrumentalist Pete Zorn).

"British music was something we'd listened to for a few years. We hung out in folk clubs where we'd hear a lot of bad music and sometimes some really inspired music. We used to play a wide range in early Fairport. At a certain point we realized we were never going to be classic imitators of American music. . . . If we were going to excel at anything, we decided we should concentrate on British music and give it some sort of contemporary value.

" 'Liege and Lief' (1969) was the album where it went full-out. We were going to revert to a broader style palette (after that folk-rooted album), but we decided it was more heartfelt. As far as I was concerned, there was something that stirred when you sang the songs in that style."

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