Linda Thompson,
Versatile Heart
(Rounder, 2007)

This is the second CD Linda Thompson has done for the major-league indie label Rounder. The first, the widely praised Fashionably Late, appeared in 2002, and Thompson, fashionably late again, releases Versatile Heart five years later.

It is impossible to write about Linda without bringing up ex-husband Richard Thompson -- "a little known, but extremely useful guitarist," she calls him in an aside in the liner notes. As most reading these words will know, she and Richard recorded and toured together and documented their hugely acrimonious break-up on their last album together, Shoot Out the Lights (1982). Since then, of course, Richard has gone on to critical acclaim as a singer-songwriter, attained a degree of fame and attracted a devoted cult following. Sometimes he performs solo, other times with a rock band, in which instances he gets to highlight his distinctive British electric-guitar approach.

As one listens to Linda's solo albums, one has no trouble discerning how much she has learned from Richard's writing, not the least of it his mordant sensibility, where love usually proves to be a particularly insidious form of treachery. If Richard is a fine singer, however, Linda is a great one. Her writing mirrors Richard's folk side as well as her youthful experience in the English folk clubs of the late 1960s and early '70s. Though only one traditional song appears on either album -- this one, with a spectacularly determined, gripping version of the ballad "Katy Cruel" -- Linda's first and continuing love is folk music. (Is there a purely traditional album in the future? One hopes so.) The lyrics on most of the songs express an unambiguously modern point of view; the melodic structures, however, are almost uniformly ballad-like. By that, let me stress, I don't mean "ballad" as in slow pop love song.

Fashionably Late was sparely produced, with a very small number of stringed instruments. Marginally less skeletal-sounding, Versatile Heart features a few slightly more rounded arrangements, with drums, organ and accordion sometimes dropped into the mix, though you could find this instrumental line-up and production on a Norma Waterson album of old-time English songs and think nothing of it.

Actually, the players include names that anybody who pays attention to folk will recognize: Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick from Linda's generation, John Doyle and Susan McKeown from her son Teddy Thompson's. "Whisky, Bob Copper & Me" name-checks the late, legendary Sussex traditional singer/song collector and even reports that "Davey's playing, Shirley's singing" -- Davey Graham and Shirley Collins, stars of the English folk scene of yesteryear.

As before, the songs are in part her own or Linda/Teddy collaborations (their "Do Your Best for Rock 'n' Roll" is pure Richard, starting with the title) or Teddy originals. A Rufus Wainwright piece shows up again; Linda co-wrote a song with him on the previous album. Daughter Kamila Thompson contributes the politely raunchy "Nice Cars." Among the most striking in an already strong line-up, "Day After Tomorrow" is an anti-Iraq-war number that Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan composed in the honored tradition of soldier's-letter-home songs.

This may not be music for the kids, but it is the work of an intelligent, gifted, grown-up artist who knows herself, knows what she wants to say and says it elegantly.

review by
Jerome Clark

2 February 2008

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