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Richard Thompson

Capitol

“Of the three things I do—writing, recording, performing—probably recording is my least favorite,” says a characteristically self-deprecating Richard Thompson in the press kit to his new album, Action Packed. And dammit, Richard, it shows. Comprising 16 tracks from his six albums with Capitol—released between 1988 and last year, when Thompson left the label of his own volition—as well as a new recording and two outtakes, Action Packed is a decidedly uneven collection. Although it may present Thompson’s favorites among his recent compositions, it also offers some of the most egregious missteps in his 30-year recording history. Mitchell Froom produced four of Thompson’s Capitol releases, and the resulting recordings are cluttered with synths and other injudiciously chosen lush-pop sounds that are at odds with the guitarist’s essential rawness. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the gentle lost-love song “I Misunderstood,” in which the elegant guitar figure that opens the song is buried under reverby keyboards and Casio-plastic percussion. The few songs that are spared undue Froomage—”1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” “Beeswing,” and “Waltzing’s for Dreamers”—reinforce Thompson’s folky cred but reveal only that one dimension of his work. Of the albums excerpted here, only 1999’s Mock Tudor, produced by Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, shows the quietly stubborn artist whose music is rooted in tradition but has rampantly blossomed into something neither folk nor rock. Four Mock Tudor tracks lead up to the fan bait at the end of Action Packed: “Persuasion,” originally written for the film Sweet Talker, and the Mock Tudor outtakes “Mr. Rebound” and “Fully Qualified to Be Your Man.” The outtakes are as purely Thompson as anything on Mock Tudor: The former is a Celtic/Moroccan-sounding cuckold’s plaint, the latter a double-entendre-laden punk-pop romp. But it’s “Persuasion” that should make the Capitol suits sorry they let Thompson get away: With spare yet rich acoustic instrumentation and vocal harmonies—Thompson sings most of the backup, with the lead taken by his silken-voiced son Teddy—it’s more radio-friendly than anything else in Thompson’s iconoclastic back catalog.

—Pamela Murray Winters