December 14, 1994
Various Artists, Beat the Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson (Capitol 1994) -- Veteran British folk rocker Richard Thompson, whose career started with Fairport Convention in 1968, has long been acknowledged for his songwriting skills and musicianship. On Beat the Retreat, artists old and new, hard and soft, gathered to prove that where there's smoke, there's fire.
Thompson wrote some of the 70's most challenging albums with his wife, Linda Thompson, including I Want to See the Bright Lights, Pour Down Like Silver, and the incredible Shoot Out the Lights (released in 1982 at the end of their marriage). Thompson pulls no punches in his songs; if he's got an axe to grind, he'll grind it 'til it hurts. In fact, Thompson's songs can be so mordant and moody that he qualifies as an honorary Canadian.
Which is not to say that Thompson's always angry, just that it is easier to focus on his darker side. Thompson's well capable of writing a love song or a pop ditty, as evidenced on this year's excellent Mirror Blue (Capitol).
Helping to develop Beat the Retreat was producer-compiler John Chelew, who is best known for his production work on John Hiatt's critically-acclaimed Bring the Family, as well as being the talent booker at McCabe's Club in Los Angeles. Says Chelew, "It was important to me to have breadth, from folky-trad pals like June Tabor and Maddy Prior to rockers like Dinosaur Jr. and Bob Mould."
Chelew continues, "There are many things the album tries to achieve. First of all, it recycles these fantastic songs into the group mind. Second, the songs work as a communication source between different generations of musicians. The old folkies that will buy it for June and Maddie will have to listen to Dinosaur Jr. and X, and the young people who buy it for Dinosaur Jr. and X and Evan Dando will have to listen to June & Maddy." Thompson suggests the theory works better than the practice. "I suspect," he adds, "that the people who like June Tabor will program Dinosaur Jr. out and visa versa."
While Shawn Colvin (who once accepted an invitation to join Thompson's band with the message, "I'll be your slave") and Loudon Wainwright III join to give new life to "A Heart Needs a Home," the CD is stolen by two of rock's biggest names.
The highlight of Beat the Retreat is the best song by R.E.M. that you won't hear this year -- "Wall of Death." Though the new album by R.E.M. (Monster) has been selling like hotcakes, nothing on it compares to their amazingly in-the-groove cover of "Wall of Death." Thompson wrote "Wall of Death" for Shoot Out the Lights; it might be about a carnival ride; but then, it might also be about a man driven to such marital anger that he could kill. Listen to this cut, and decide for yourself.
The other great track on Beat the Retreat is Bonnie Raitt's gut-wrenching reading of "When the Spell is Broken." Bonnie's a hell of a singer; when she's teamed with A-list material, she can really cut loose. And that's exactly what she does on "When the Spell is Broken." With a bluesy, spiritual background section, Bonnie digs and roots around in this song like the pain is hers personally. And that is what makes it great.
In the end, tribute albums are only as good as the original artist. In Thompson's case, the songwriting skills are unchallenged (and, in the U.S., largely unknown). On the strength of the R.E.M. and Bonnie Raitt cuts alone, buy Beat the Retreat. It will open your eyes about Richard Thompson; it will also convince you that Monster isn't all it cracked up to be.
Over the Rhine, Eve (I.R.S. Records 1994) -- The third album from Over the Rhine shows that I.R.S. Record president Jay Boberg was right when he decided to leave Over the Rhine alone. "Why mess with it? Over the Rhine doesn't need direction. They know where they are going." Eve rewards Broberg's patience, as the 12 tracks have a rich, alternative sound and strong sense of self-direction.
Propelled by the swirling, haunting vocals of lead singer Karin Bergquist, Over the Rhine follows down the alternative path pioneered by Cocteau Twins. The band is based in Cincinnati, Ohio (the name of the group is taken from an old German neighborhood in Cincinnati), and also consists of Rick Hordinski on guitars, Brian Kelley on drums, and Linford Detweiler on bass and keyboards.
Over the Rhine has been steadily building an audience since 1989, and has played the Midwest, Europe, and last fall, opened for Squeeze on their 40-city U.S. tour. Trina Shoemaker, a protege of Daniel Lanois and Malcolm Burn, was retained as the primary recording engineer for the album, and brings a restrained feeling to the disc. There's a sense of self-consciousness that permeates Eve; it's as if the band is confident in their abilities, but wary of making a misstep.
While songs like "Melancholy Room" focus on the band's alternative sensibilities, tracks like "June" reveal a bluesy side to the band (like the Cowboy Junkies) that hasn't previously been displayed. Singer Karin Bergquist is a true talent; her sense of personality comes across in all of the cuts, and carries the band. Eve is a terrific disc -- but with a little more focus of the pop side, Over the Rhine could be smash hits.
More From I.R.S. -- Speaking of I.R.S. Records, let's not ignore On the Charts, I.R.S. Records 1979-1994. Featuring 12 tracks from the I.R.S. vaults, On the Charts is a great sampler. Whether you lean toward perfect ear candy ("Our Lips are Sealed" by the Go-Gos), slacker anthems ("The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades" by Timbuk 3), one-hit wonders ("She Drives Me Crazy" by The Fine Young Cannibals), or prog-rock ("The One I Love" by R.E.M.), there's something here for everyone. Support the real I.R.S. -- get On the Charts.
Sue Foley -- Blues guitarist Sue Foley performed an amazing set last Friday at Club Fred. If you missed her gig, you missed one of the most talented young blues guitarists in the business. From the opening cover of "Further On Down the Road" through a blistering rock reading of "Money" to fine original material from her album, Without a Warning (released on Antone's), Sue and her three-piece band (including one of the best drummers heard recently in these parts, a rock solid white guy named Fredd E. "Pharaoh" Walden) blew everyone in the audience away.
On the down side, the sound man put too much echo in Sue's vocals, giving her voice a tinny sound. The turn-out at Fred's was light, which is a damned shame for an artist with Sue's talent. Get off your butt, and go listen to some live music!
-- Randy Krbechek
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