Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!
Richard Thompson’s solo debut, Henry the Human Fly, began with a song that contained the line, “Don’t expect the words to ring too sweetly on the ear.” This would become his songwriting credo, as he penned lyrics that were incisive, emotive, and not the least bit sentimental, bringing them home with an equally biting guitar. His wife Linda sang with a powerful clarity, her voice full of aching, mischief, mourning, celebration, or whatever else the song might call for. She’s fully entitled to her equal billing. On their debut release as a couple, 1974’s I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight, Richard and Linda Thompson report what they’ve encountered on a very British Desolation Row, in a musical language that could have been written half a millennium ago or the day after tomorrow.
The word “depressing” gets thrown around a lot when describing the album, and it’s true that each song is suffused with the presence of the have-nots, those people who live in dread of Mondays and who accept their lot in life with resignation and a good shrug of the shoulders. All these people, though, have one thing in common – they’re going to last. The timelessness of the Thompsons’ writing and performance guarantees that nobody in these songs will become lost or forgotten, and while mere perseverance may not be the most uplifting of conclusions, it’s enough to keep any sense of hopelessness completely at bay.
Of course, other artists have done their part to keep these songs and their denizens as viable as ever. Here are ten of them…
MP3: M. Ward (featuring Zooey Deschanel) – When I Get To The Border (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
A movie called The Go-Getter opened in five theaters the first weekend of June 2008; three days later, it left those five theaters and never appeared in another. Total nationwide gross: under $12,000. But something popular and lasting did come out of it – director Martin Hynes introduced one of its stars, Zooey Deschanel, to M. Ward, who was doing the soundtrack, and asked them to come up with a duet to play under the closing credits. They selected “When I Get To The Border.” Creative sparks flew, they decided to form She & Him, and the rest is hipster-y.
MP3: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Tortoise – The Calvary Cross (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
The Brave and the Bold was a cover album as eclectic as the bartender’s side of the counter, featuring versions of Elton John, Devo, and Lungfish, among others. “The Calvary Cross” was a highlight, keeping the death-march beat of the original and adding Will Oldham’s fearful cracked voice – not to mention a marimba. If only we could hear more of that guitar solo at the end.
MP3: The Mendoza Line – Withered and Died (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
Shannon McArdle of the band The Mendoza Line (ask your baseball-loving friends where that name comes from) came home from work to find a note from Tim Bracy, her husband and bandmate, saying, “I’m gone.” Six months later, 30 Year Low was released and joined the ranks of albums inspired by the ending of a marriage. Shoot Out The Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson’s own acrimonious record of a shattering partnership, is considered a bellwether of the genre, so it’s ironic that 30 Year Low has a cover of “Withered and Died.” McArdle has said she never saw the end coming, but you’d never know it to listen to her here.
MP3: The Gourds – I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
The Gourds give the title track the goofiest possible grin with a galumphing beat and a vocal that could pass for Springsteen after a few beers (on your part and his). A few words in a terrible British accent provide the finishing touch for this cover, born to shamble and proud of it.
MP3: Jiggernaut – Down Where the Drunkards Roll (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
On the original album, the placement of “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” served as the auditory equivalent of the hangover from the celebrating of the title track’s night before. But Jiggernaut, a Celtic-rock band based in Texas, trades the trudging through the mire of the mind for a punchier sound, including lively drumming and a bagpipe that sparkles, if such a thing can be said to be possible. Here, the lyrics have a note of triumph to them – rolling with the drunkards doesn’t lead to a dead end anymore.
MP3: Johnny Collins – We Sing Hallelujah (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
This a cappella rendition sounds like it could be performed in a stone church, on a roadside stage, in a living room prayer meeting, or on the deck of a ship at sea. Stripped of accompaniment, performed in a plain but strong voice, the song sounds nothing less than immortal.
MP3: The Deighton Family – Has He Got a Friend For Me (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
The second vocal-only track in a row, but this one sounds more vulnerable without the music to go with it. Linda Thompson asks the title question with a near-desperate ache in her voice; The Deighton Family dial it back to a plaintive tone, but one that still needs the answer ‘yes’ more than it needs anything else.
MP3: Zoox – The Little Beggar Girl (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
“The Little Beggar Girl” in this song knows her circumstances are poor, but the sly delight she takes in using them to manipulate her audience is enough to put a smile on the listener’s face, no matter how rueful. The tin whistle is hardly missed in the cover, proving the song is strong enough to retain its power without having to assert its Celtic heritage.
MP3: Trevor Lucas – The End of the Rainbow (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
“I feel for you, you little horror” is one of the most notorious opening lines of Thompson’s canon; it takes a special musician to sing it without turning the audience against him. Fortunately, that’s what Trevor Lucas was. Never a leading light in the British folk scene, he was nevertheless a key part of it – co-founder of Fotheringay, member of Fairport Convention, husband of Sandy Denny, he even sang backing vocals on the original “Down Where the Drunkards Roll.” Here, he takes Thompson’s nightmare of a lullaby and perfectly conveys the depth and hollowness of the man singing to the baby, who has suffered the slings and arrows of misfortune and has realized how much he misses the pain they inflicted upon him.
MP3: June Tabor – The Great Valerio (Richard and Linda Thompson cover)
Linda Thompson closes Bright Lights Tonight with a breathtaking performance that will inspire awe from its listeners forevermore. Superficially the tale of a tightrope walker and the crowd that watches him, “The Great Valerio” conveys fear, excitement, tension, resignation, and any number of shades of darkness. It takes courage to even attempt a cover of this, so high has the bar been set. That June Tabor’s dramatic rendition is as powerful as Linda Thompson’s is a triumph all by itself, and a perfect closer to this collection.