Richard Thompson’s opening salvo for the 1990s remains one of the best works in the English guitar maverick’s extensive catalog
Much to his credit, Richard Thompson has refused to alight on any one genre.
Instead, he preferred to apply his considerable guitar virtuosity and underrated songwriting gifts to whatever strikes his fancy—from more avant collaborations with Henry Kaiser and Fred Firth to dabbling in classical music and of course a number of English trad folk music outings. Mostly though he’s stayed in a singer/songwriter groove that leans folky `a la his former band Fairport Convention and has become very adept at drawing telling character sketches like the one in “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”
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But for one brief moment in 1991 Thompson allowed his image and the production style of his records to be labeled “alternative.” While I’m sure he’d say, of course everyone is alternative to everyone else, this seemingly innocuous word had a very specific meaning in the music biz in 1992. As that year’s hot buzz term du jour, “alternative rock,” supercharged by the success of Nirvana, was all the rage among both A&R reps and consumers. Guitar bands were everywhere. Labels rushed to get in on the action. The last flowering of rock and roll was fully underway. As a founding member of Fairport, Richard Thompson seemed like a round peg for this square hole but that didn’t deter his producer Mitchell Froom, nor his label Capitol Records or ultimately Thompson himself from giving it a shot. The schtick worked and Rumor and Sigh, which has just celebrated the 25th anniversary of its release, was nominated for a 1992 Grammy as the Best Alternative Music Album. Coming in at #32, it was also his first U.K album to chart in the Top 50 albums.
“(Read about love).
I read it in a magazine
(Read about love)
Cosmo and Seventeen
(Read about love)
In the back of Hustler, Hustler, Hustler”
To be frank—and I’m sure he knew it at the time—he was too old by at least a decade to appeal to alt rock fans. Cheesy lyrics like those above were the words of a middle-aged man not a twenty-something rocker. The musical template for this supposed alt rock conversion was simple: jumpy tempos, drums annoyingly prominent in the mix, and a more electric (as opposed to acoustic) vibe overall. The album’s single “I Feel So Good” with its E Street Band-styled organ in the choruses reached #15 in the U.S. on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. Charming as it is, it’s no alt-rock number. And thankfully, Thompson did not turn up his guitar and get buzzy. The album’s second single was the very Thompson-esque stomp march (with touches of Elvis Costello-like bounce), “Read About Love,” which failed to chart. So much for that career as an alternative artist.
VIDEO: Richard Thompson “I Feel So Good”
But marketing ploys, bandwagonisms and a lusher production style aside, the album– which sounds if had been recorded yesterday–attests to the timelessness of Thompson’s songs and is perhaps his strongest single album collection of original songs ever. Thompson, Froom and former member of Elvis Presley’s TCM group, bassist Jerry Scheff, are the band with the drumming split between Mickey Curry (Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, Sam Phillips’ Martinis & Bikinis) and the great Jim Keltner. Flashes of Thompson’s past, which allude to this being solidly in his musical progression are audible via appearances by Scottish fiddler Aly Bain and early music specialist Philip Pickett on shawm, crumhorn, curtal, who is now incarcerated having been convicted of rape in 2015. Released at the height of the compact disc era, Rumor and Sigh had to wait until 2017 to be released on vinyl in the States.
The album’s deeper charms begin with the quiet, mournful, “I Misunderstood” where set to a galloping rhythm he thought “she was saying good luck, she was saying goodbye.” His brief yodel near the song’s conclusion points to the fact that besides memorable originals, Rumor and Sigh is also a classic because of Thompson’s outstanding vocal performances. Whether it was Froom’s urging or Thompson’s desire to have a hit, he delivers some of the most nuanced and forceful singing of his entire career. Moving deeper into the album, even an 80’s-like mix that’s tilted towards an overly punchy snare drum can’t totally sink the chorus hook of ‘Dream Too Much.” In the rhythmic ebb and flow of the turbulent “Backlash Love Affair,” the subject who is hooked up with a metal fan who is memorably portrayed via some of Thompson’s most vivid lyrics— “got tattoos everywhere you look-she’s a comic book”—finally concludes that he “can’t live my life as someone else’s shishkebab.”
An accordion powers the singalong melody of “Don’t Sit on my Jimmy Shands,” whose title refers to the 78 records of Scottish accordionist Shand who was a favorite of Thompson’s father and who his son Richard covered on his Henry the Human Fly and Strict Tempo albums. Two acoustic numbers, the much beloved “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “God Loves a Drunk” (though Thompson himself does not partake) hint at what a powerful solo performer he can be. He flashes his Stratocaster skills on “Mother Knows Best” his biting farewell to Margaret Thatcher. Finally, Rumor and Sigh is the home of one of Thompson’s most transcendent originals, the exquisitely sad lament, “Keep Your Distance,” which has since Rumor and Sigh been memorably covered by Americana artists Buddy and Julie Miller.
“It’s a desperate game we play,
Throw our souls, our lives, away
Wounds that can’t be mended
And debts that can’t be paid
Oh I played and I got stung
Now I’m biting back my tongue
I’m sweeping out
The footprints where I strayed.”
While it may not have made him an alt rock star, Rumor and Sigh, with its memorable cover art has become a linchpin in Thompson’s catalog and in truth his closest brush with wider fame and name recognition in the US to this day.
Although he has charted higher in the U.K. since with 2015’s Still reaching #10 on the album chart, it remains one of 10 albums (out of over 50) to break into the UK top 50. He usually includes at least one song from Rumor and Sigh—in addition to the ubiquitous “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” in his live shows.
25 years have not dimmed the incandescence of this marvelous collection of unforgettable material.