The 'Making of' Front Parlour Ballads
6/5/2005 (updated 6/5/2005)
'Front Parlour Ballads,'
During his four decades of music making,
Richard Thompson has been set upon by a fiercely loyal and singularly attentive constituency; aficionados for whom every nuance in Thompson's oeuvre, from his choice of a particular word to the fret on which his fingers alight at any given moment carries some degree of significance (for bountiful evidence, take a look at the interaction between fans and artist on richardthompson-music.com, his delightful website). So it's fair to say that those fans have a treat in store with Front Parlour Ballads, Thompson's second album with Cooking Vinyl following 2003's The Old Kit Bag. It's his first solo acoustic effort since 1981's Strict Tempo! and the first-ever acoustic studio album of original songs in his extensive discography.
Encompassing everything from rollicking tales of quickie marriages in "Let it Blow," a lilting love song dedicated to "Miss Patsy," a metaphorical voyage through the rough seas of the big-time music business in "Row, Boys, Row" and the devastatingly beautiful lament of "Precious One," Front Parlour Ballads is a treasure box of stories and characters, all delivered with Thompson's masterful guitar work, sonorous voice and bittersweet lyrics. Many of these songs were written in one of their author's intermittent thematic bursts, and they all insisted on being together, so Thompson, the father of scores of songs as well as five biological offspring, knew enough about how these things work to arrange a play date.
"The production on this record is the kind of thing the audience actually asks for," Thompson explains. "They ask for simple; they don't want the frills in the way. They don't want the glossy, hi-fi production‹they wouldn't know what to do with it. They want to hear the squeaks of fingers on strings and, dare I say, the cock-ups. So that's what they're gonna get."
It should be pointed out at this juncture that the term "solo" in reference to the recording in question is absolutely literal. These performances were laid down in Thompson's home studio, situated in the garage of his home in Los Angeles, with nary another soul in the vicinity; he simply pressed RECORD and commenced to emote into the microphone, accompanying himself on his trusty wooden guitar. On some of the tracks he overdubbed a second acoustic, making for a rich textural filigree; on others he added electric bass, mandolin and/or accordion. He brought in percussionist Debra Dobkin (Bonnie Raitt, Was/Not Was, Thompson's own 1000 Years of Popular Music) to bang rhythmically on various handy objects for the album's two rockin' ringers, "Let It Blow" and "My Soul, My Soul," on which his muse, apparently in a party mood, compelled him to plug in his electric and make some noise, "front parlour" and "ballads" be damned. On the remaining 11 numbers, however, your host and his muse are on their best behavior.
Of his solitary approach to Front Parlour Ballads, Thompson says, "There's a danger with that method that you get too confessional or too introverted in your style of delivery, so I had to be aware of that. Because I've heard home recordings where it's all projected to about two inches in front of their nose, and somehow that's not quite enough. So I learned to project 10 feet away‹through the wall into the next room," he quips. "I think if you concentrate on telling the story, you don't really have time to think about much else. You want to get inside the story, inside the song.
"Bearing that in mind, it was a nice thing because I didn't really think about it. I just thought, 'Oh, well, I'll just go in and see if the equipment works. And while I'm doing that, I'll just put something down and see what happens. Well, that sounds OK, let me just overdub another guitar so I can learn how to overdub with this particular hardware.' And then things just got done. It was nice to think, 'Oh, I've got an hour before I go out‹I'll just go and record something.' So it was done very casually."
When it's pointed out that the album might more accurately be titled Garage Ballads, Thompson replies, "I suppose so. I was just trying to get a nicer picture in people's minds than me sitting among the propane tanks and whatever else is back there."
reprint courtesy of Shore Fire Media