Jan 092010

Get over it!

I went shopping this morning for an interesting box set for a friend who turned 50 today. He’s a cool, smart guy and big Bob Dylan fan but not what you’d call a hardcore music nerd. His taste in the folkier side of ’60s and ’70s rock is pretty solid, though, and in recent years he’s begun to dig deeper into a couple of previously obscure artists, like Nick Drake. He’ll often ask me questions about new avenues he wants to take. About 2 years ago he wanted to check out The Who Sell Out, after reading the typical critics’ darling hype. Of course I told him to go for it. He did, and he still brings it up now and then. He generally likes it, but it’s taking him some work.

I saw a new Richard Thompson box set, Walking on a Wire: Richard Thompson (1968-2009), and I was reaching for it before I saw the parenthetical year span in the title. Dammit, I thought, I’m not supporting Thompson for all the crap he’s released since hitching up with Mitchell Froom! Some of you may recall I usually dislike Froom’s sparkling kitchen sink approach to production. It keeps me locked out from getting inside the music.

Get over it!

I’ve also got a beef with Thompson’s beret, the way critics began fawning over his work just as it started to go downhill, and his comfort with readily expressing his droll sense of humor. Shoot Out the Lights is among the worst of the Richard and Linda Thompson album – the production is DOA – but almost no Thompson fan shares my opinion. Can’t you people hear how much better their earlier albums are?

This is my cross to bear. I was such a baby, when I was out shopping earlier today, that I walked out of the store with no gift for my friend.

Later this afternoon, while looking over the full tracklist, I wondered if I should get over it. if I don’t get hung up on discs 3 and 4, I thought, it’s still the perfect gift! I went back to the store, planning on being a bigger man and buying my friend this box set. Then I took one final look at the tracklist and thought better of it. Of the five Fairport Convention selections, there’s not enough of Sandy Denny‘s key vocal tracks. Richard Thompson wouldn’t be half the critics’ darling without Sandy Denny, his other Fairport mates, and Linda Thompson. The guy benefits from collaborators, from being a part of a band, and I don’t think any solo-focused collection can do him justice.

I’ve had all my Richard Thompson-related albums sitting in front of my stereo for months. I’ve been meaning to burn the songs I really love and make my personal killer comp. I’ve been thinking this will allow me to come to terms with all the beefs I’ve had with Thompson since excitedly placing the needle on Shoot Out the Lights and then feeling letdown, since buying the first of those Froom-produced albums, since hearing him interviewed on NPR about his cover of a Britney Spears song – most likely while wearing that beret! Man, I’ve got to get around to burning those killer tracks and appreciating all that’s great about Richard Thompson. I’ve got to get over it.


  22 Responses to “Get Over It”

  1. BigSteve

    Yes, you do. And get over your Froomophobia while you’re at it. How can his style be both “sparkling” and “kitchen sink” at the same time?

    I don’t have that RT box, because I already have pretty much everything on it, but it would have made a great gift for your friend. I put all the solo albums on my Ipod, and I’ve been going through them at the gym. There were more memorable songs that I thought there’d be.

    Being consistently excellent over a long period of time is a fault more artists ought to suffer from.

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    Just a quick word to say you are RIGHT about both the Mitch Froom stuff — it’s cold and sterile-sounding — and *especially* about “Shoot…” Man, when I listened to that thing the first time, I was sorely disappointed. Once again, the rock critics of the world had let me DOWN.

  3. Mr. Moderator

    Thanks for your support – or maybe not – in my NOT wanting to get over it, Hrrundi. That means a lot.

    BigSteve, you’re the man, but Froom does play the “kitchen sink” game while using only parts bought from custom suppliers. To me it runs counter to the notion of kitchen-sink production, which should sound like they were constructed from parts bought at Sanford & Son.

  4. There are two kinds of Froom productions, basically. There is the sterile kitchen sink stuff, mostly his work from the ’80s for Richard Thompson, Crowded House etc. His work in the ’90s, when he began working more with Tchad Blake as a co-producer/engineer, is much more interesting and less glossy: Los Lobos, Suzanne Vega and especially the wonderful first Latin Playboys album.

    Anyway, he’s had a hand in too many albums that I love for me to write him off out-of-hand.

    Mr. Mod, maybe you should see if you can track down the first Richard Thompson box set, Watching the Dark, which features less emphasis on the Froom era.

    One thing I will give Thompson in the ’80s and (less so) ’90s. Despite whatever production missteps, he’s generally reliable for a song or two that’s can stand unembarrassingy next to his undisputed classics on a set list. Sometimes I think that’s what older artists should aspire towards most of all.

    Shoot Out the Lights is good. It’s restrained.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    Good distinction, Oats. I like the Los Lobos album I own that he produced (Kiko and the Shuttered Moon, or something like that), and other things he’s done with that crowd and his ex(?)-wife are an improvement. Still, he and that Tchad Blake guy still have a tendency to work a little too hard at getting into Tom Waits’ Sanford & Son territory. I think the Los Lobos crowd gets enough out of its ability as players so that the artifice doesn’t interfere or overtake the music. Fair enough point about Froom growing, however.

    I’ll get around to burning all the stuff I love/like a lot by Thompson. For an artist I give such a hard time, I probably own 15 albums centered around his contributions.

    As you note, the problem with Shoot Out the Lights is that it’s “good,” not anywhere near as great as it had been advertised.

  6. KingEd

    Oats is right about Froom’s development with Blake. Last week I received an advance of a forthcoming Los Lobos record that they recorded with that pair. I’ll post a track in a few minutes as evidence of their “junkyard funk.”

  7. Mr. Moderator

    You weren’t messing around, KingEd. I see your post is completed. I’ll post it now. Thanks!

  8. BigSteve

    I just think some of these descriptions — cold, sparkling, sterile, glossy — are just metaphors. They’re over-used, vague, and not especially illuminating. Most of the time it seems to me those terms mean ‘skillfully and professionally engineered.’ Would adding noise, mistakes, or an amateurish mix make RT’s albums ‘warmer’ or ‘more emotional’? I think these terms are useless.

    ‘Kitchen sink’ is more descriptive, but it doesn’t really go with ‘sparkling.’ And I can’t remember any RT recordings that have unusual instrumentation or effects. I believe Los Lobos benefits from the more unorthodox approach, because otherwise they can very easily come off as kind of barbandish.

    I do agree that Shoot Out the Lights is somewhat over-rated. I blame the backstory. There are certainly better Richard and Linda albums, but there are indubitably worse ones than SOTL, such as its immediate predecessors First Light and Sunnyvista.

  9. dbuskirk

    Excellent post Steve, cruel but fair.

    Sometimes I forget the guy who made POUR DOWN LIKE SILVER is still making music. POOR DOWN LIKE SILVER, that’s the album for me, although I do have the two before it. That “Ooops, I Did It Again” song sounds pretty typical of the stuff I’ve heard of his since. Somehow, 1994’s MIRROR BLUE is still in my collection. Probably because Mingus’ name is in a song title.

    Always wondered why other folks weren’t put off by SHOOT OUT THE LIGHTS’ muted production.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve, I’m doing the best I can in limited time. I like the warmth (sorry to stoop to that term) of albums like Pour Down Like Silver and Henry the Human Fly. I feel it befits Thompson and company’s ability to PLAY. Unlike the bar bandish Los Lobos, you’re right, he doesn’t need gimmickry. Froom doesn’t actually go kitchen sink on the Thompson albums, from what I recall, but they sound so clean – I’m sorry, PROFESSIONAL! I don’t like it. I don’t like the focus on his “Songwriting,” which I find a bit self-conscious and pompous, and I don’t like his attempts at undercutting his Songwriter pose with the gimmicky humor that became a big part of his newfound, somewhat popularity in the AAA radio market. I’m not saying I don’t like Richard Thompson – I own 15 albums centering around the guy – but I don’t like what he’s become. And giving me the holier-than-thou “All artists should be so lucky to be turning out half-decent material after 40 years!” isn’t going to help me get over it. I agree with that, but it doesn’t make his approach since the Froom albums any less annoying…to me.

  11. I agree that the Froom-produced records are not Thompson’s best work, although the degree of ire the Mod gives towards them does seem a bit overly sensitive on his part–all those albums have some good songs on them, even if none of the albums is great, and they’re more or less listenable all the way through, even if they don’t have the absolute highlights of his earlier work.

    The best songs on Shoot Out The Lights are some of Thompson’s absolutely best work (really pretty much the whole second side), and some of the merely good songs on the first side are nonetheless played and sung with both restraint and passion, a tough combination.

    By the way, there’s a 6-CD Thompson compilation of rarities and unreleased floating around free on the Internet that’s consistently enjoyable and collects some things of his that are really worth having. Not sure, myself, that some kind of Selected Box Set really does the truck. I’d be glad to point it out to anybody who wants it.

    Anyway, “helping Mod get over it” is not really workable–he just uses the “I need to get over it” ploy as a way of pointing out that he doesn’t really intend to get over it but hopes to goad us into thinking he might.

  12. I want to add too that I really dig his Britney cover–he actually makes the song feel very much like one of his own, and one of his better late character sketches.

    Agreed though about the beret–that’s definitely part of his nice guy NPR feel at times in recent years. I’ve decided though that I think Front Parlour Ballads, which I only picked up recently, is a strong record. And does anybody around here know Industry? I dig that record too.

  13. dbuskirk

    Google shows The Cars and Quincy Jones are both tied with two RTH mentions. Maybe tied at three after I post this…

  14. Mr. Moderator

    Nice detective work, db!

  15. hrrundivbakshi

    BigSteve said:

    I just think some of these descriptions — cold, sparkling, sterile, glossy — are just metaphors. They’re over-used, vague, and not especially illuminating. Most of the time it seems to me those terms mean ‘skillfully and professionally engineered.’ Would adding noise, mistakes, or an amateurish mix make RT’s albums ‘warmer’ or ‘more emotional’? I think these terms are useless.

    I say:

    Mod, take that cold, sparkling-white, sterile lab coat off and pass it to BigSteve! At least *somebody* around here knows how to hold our music-loving feet to the quantitative flame!

  16. dbuskirk

    Kinda shocked there aren’t more Cars defenders here. Roy Thomas Baker’s production stirred my soul hen I first heard it. The debut is a wonderfully sequenced record….

  17. I’ll go to bat for The Cars. I love ’em and I dig the Baker production.

    I have Shoot Out The Lights on vinyl. I’ve listened to it a couple of times, but it wasn’t enough to get me on board with the RT thing. I know he’s a brilliant guitarist, but one that I have not taken the time to explore more deeply. I can only speak for my lack of enthusiasm for SOTL. BUt, then again, maybe I didn’t hear it right. I’m certainly willing to give a few more goes.

    Didn’t Froom have a hand in Mighty Like A Turd?

    I honestly don’t know what I think about Froom. He’s had a hand in some records I do like, but I can’t say that it’s his production that burns my biscuits. I suppose there are times when I look past the production and hear the songs and enjoy them on that basis (this practice works for most 80s records for me). There are other times that the production and the song go hand in hand (hence my devotion to Jeff Lynne). Froom has a definite “sound” and I understand what Mod is getting at with his problem with it.


  18. misterioso

    This discussion has almost motivated me to make a minimal effort to overcome my near total lack of interest in Richard Thompson’s vast body of work. Or not.

    Latelydavid–Mighty like a turd, that’s funny. I think Froom only plays keyboards on that and Spike, so blame for their sucky production must be a laid elsewhere. He produced Brutal Youth, though, right?

  19. I can’t take credit for Mighty Like A Turd. I blame The Hall for its inclusion into my vernacular.

    See? I like Brutal Youth, so therein lies my problems with Froom…


  20. A friend of mine credits Froom for breaking up some of the awful production styles of the 80’s. Put up the first two Crowded House albums up by something like the Del Fuegos, Wire Train or the Plimsouls’ studio albums. There was a point where Froom was producing many of my favorite albums, and I’m not saying that they have all aged well, or that he’s the perfect producer for all of those artists (particularly Thompson) but I don’t find his style sterile at all. He does tend to lean on a particular vocal effect that puts a little distance between you and the singer, and sometimes he fails miserably (99.9 F Degrees – Blood Makes Noise is just silly now) but when he gets it right, I think his brand of warped sonics is just the right thing. My favorite of his productions are Ron Sexsmith’s “Whereabouts,” Suzanne Vega’s, “Nine Objects of Desire” and Crowded House’s “Temple of Low Men.” He tried to make things sound different. He runs stuff through guitar pedals and prefers delay to reverb. He’s not David Kahne, and that is a very, very good thing.

  21. I think part of this thread has bled into the one about The Cars, but I’m going to respond here anyway.

    If I were to recommend a latter-day Thompson album to Mr. Mod, it would be Mock Tudor. Froom plays keyboards on a few tracks, but does not produce. The songs are a nice mix of character studies and semi-autobiography (The album is about his UK suburban upbringing). This came out in 1999, and it’s the last new RT album that I felt enthusiastic about. After that, I kinda got the feeling that I had probably bought my fill of new RT music (although I did score a promo copy of that six-CD box from a few years back).

    At the same time, I can imagine Mr. Mod listening to this album and proclaiming that it’s basically interchangable from a Froom production. I wonder if any of us could really tell his work in a blindfold taste test.

  22. hrrundivbakshi

    Oats: we REACH! That “Mock Tudor” LP is a good’un.

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