Richard Thompson sums it up, The Aislers Set reissues.
British guitarist/singer/songwriter Richard Thompson’s latest, Acoustic Classics, is technically a studio album, but in spirit, it’s a representation of his solo acoustic live performances; it draws from material from the last 40 years and sharply demonstrates how he has honed his repertoire, updating electric and/or full-band song arrangements into tight, immaculate and breathtakingly intricate solo arrangements.
The album is available on Thompson’s own boutique label Beeswing, which has released live albums, although Thompson is a bit particular about releasing live material, reflecting his devotion to quality control. With Acoustic Classics, Thompson gets the best of both worlds—a cleanly recorded, flawless studio document, with the execution and song selection of a live performance.
Even back when Thompson was a teenager in Fairport Convention in the late ’60s, his playing style sounded utterly distinctive, but over the years, he has further developed his style, taking advantage of his virtuosity. Just compare Acoustic Classics to an earlier solo acoustic album—the live Small Town Romance recorded in 1982—and you’ll hear a dramatic change, going from his previous strum-centric technique to his current hybrid picking style (using a pick between the thumb and index finger and finger-picking with the remaining fingers) which allows him to have a nimble picking precision augmented with complex counterpoint.
The song list spans four decades, with selections from 1974’s immortal I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight up to “One Door Opens” from 2003’s Old Kit Bag, and it’s full of fan favorites, including the beloved tragic ballad “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” with the story arc of a folk tale, updated, and the tender “Beeswing” with a few mandolin licks to thicken the melodies.
Thompson’s 1982 masterpiece Shoot Out the Lights is well-represented, with the title track featuring an astounding solo that teeters with a discordant cascade and the thrill-seeking “Wall of Death.” This writer would like to point out that the line “I wish I could please you tonight, but my medicine just won’t come right” from that album’s heartbreaking divorce precursor “Walking on a Wire”—originally sung by ex-wife Linda Thompson—adopts a new unintentional meaning here, sung by a man in this modern world where erectile-dysfunction drugs are available.
As always, Thompson’s singing is hearty and strong, and Acoustic Classics is actually a good entry point for newcomers into his dauntingly large catalog, as well as a treat for long-time fans who will appreciate the new arrangements of old favorites.
The Aislers Set
The Last Match
There’s a distinction between insufferable, retro-obsessed pastiche and more informed, thoughtful and tasteful homages, and it’s not always easy to articulate exactly how things can go wrong or right.
The legendary British DJ John Peel commented, after the San Francisco band The Aislers Set performed its track “Long Division” for a BBC Peel Session in 2001, that he couldn’t quite put into words why The Aislers Set was better than other American groups mining similar musical territory—“I don’t know; they just sort of are,” he chuckled. If this writer were to take a stab at articulating that elusive quality, he’d offer this: it’s OK to borrow, as long as you make it your own.
That’s what The Aislers Set was able to do successfully in the late ’90s and early ’00s—draw from various pop influences, such as bright ’60s pop and garage rock, with ’80s British C86 influences, and carve out its own identity. The guitar distortion on certain songs even conjures The Jesus & Mary Chain, with a hint of noisy shoegaze, bringing to mind front-woman/multi-instrumentalist Amy Linton’s previous band Henry’s Dress.
Slumberland Records has recently remastered and reissued all three albums from The Aislers Set for vinyl, CD and digital releases; Terrible Things Happen from 1998 is a fine debut, darting between wistful and bouncy pop, and 2003’s How I Learned to Write Backwards—reissued with a different track order—is a little less memorable, with less variation.
It’s the 2000 album The Last Match that is the band’s peak and most consistently excellent release—a meticulously crafted home recording, on 8-track reel-to-reel tape, featuring glistening melodies and a charged kinetic energy with a bittersweet, down-and-out punk underbelly and thrift-store romanticism, obsessed with geography.
While The Aislers Set is primarily Linton’s vehicle—for some material, Linton plays and sings everything—guitarist/vocalist Wyatt Cusick takes the wheel for a few of his own compositions, including the Belle and Sebastian-esque “Chicago New York.”
If this writer had to pick the single best Aislers Set moment, it’s “Hit the Snow,” which seemingly pulls out all the stops, for irresistible, ornamental pop, and the album has an abundance of rousing pop-rock stompers with reedy, evocative organ lines, plus a cover of “Balloon Song” by 14 Iced Bears.
Listening to The Last Match, it becomes apparent that the group understood that a little goes a long way and that small details—handclaps, a tambourine shake or a xylophone flourish—can make a huge difference without banging the listener over the head.