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Richard and Linda Thompson - I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (Island)

17 March 2008

As readers of this column will know, I rarely review individual records here. However, for the past week, I’ve been listening to this record almost obsessively, so I feel compelled to give it the full review treatment since I feel that a mere placement on my weekly Top 10 won’t fully do it justice. Before I get to the actual record, I feel that a bit of backstory is required.

I received a cd-r of the 2004 remastered version of this album from a friend. I was intrigued not only by the album’s reputation (it regularly shows up in those “500 best albums of all-time” lists and for good reason), but mainly by two if its bleakest, darkest songs. These would be “Withered and Died” along with “End of the Rainbow”. I first heard ELVIS COSTELLO’s version of these songs many years ago. “Withered and Died” was originally the B-side of his 1984 single “Peace in Our Time” (the second and last record he released under the pseudonym THE IMPOSTER) and in 1995, it showed up as an unlisted track on Rykodisc’s remastered version of his 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World.

Costello’s version of “End of the Rainbow” was released on a charity record in 1986, though I first heard it on the second volume of a rarities compilation called Plugging the Gaps, which consisted of B-sides, compilation tracks and other rarities that at that point had never been issued on CD.

The first time I listened to it, I was absolutely hooked and promptly played it again. Not only were the two songs I already knew standouts from the very beginning, but others like the opening track “When I Get to the Border” and the title track laid their claws into me early on and never let go. The production, playing, melodies, lyrics and most of all the blend of Richard and Linda’s voices are top-notch, as anyone who’s heard this album can attest to. I have to confess that I’m a bigger fan of the songs that Linda sings, generally speaking. Although every song she sings on this record is incredible, her best vocal performance on here could be the last track, the incomparable “The Great Valerio”. Her vocal performance is so good it should be studied in vocal classes (and for all I know, it might be somewhere). All of this praise for Linda shouldn’t diminish the role of Richard’s vocal performances or his guitar-playing. His voice takes a bit of getting used to and isn’t quite as beautiful as Linda’s, but it’s gritty, soulful and full of feeling and life, especially on “When I Get to the Border” and “End of the Rainbow”.

Now the one thing about the CD reissue that I don’t particularly like is the fact that there’s no break between “The Great Valerio” (the last track on the original Lp) and the 3 bonus tracks. These tracks (live versions of the title track and “Calvary Cross”, both of which still feature in Richard’s live sets today, as well as a cover of the BUCK OWENS standard “We’re Together Again”). At the very least there should’ve been a good 15 seconds of silence if not more. Regardless, it’s a wonderful package, with liner notes, lyrics and good sound to boot.

With that said, I still believe that music from this era (and most rock and roll in general) sounds better on vinyl. Thus, I went out specifically looking for a vinyl version of this album (as well as any other Richard and Linda records I could find) one day last week. As I looked through the ‘T’s at my local record store, the very last record in that section was an early ‘80s repress of this album on JOE BOYD’s Hannibal label. Well technically the label is Carthage, but obviously it’s the same thing given the land Hannibal ruled over before he was conquered by the Romans. Although the price was a little high (at $8), I still went for it as the record and the cover (except for the side label) were both in pristine condition. And as I listened to it that evening, I enjoyed the crackling sound of the needle hitting the vinyl, the ritual of flipping over sides after “Down Where the Drunkards Roll” and the album coming to its natural end after “The Great Valerio”.

It should also be noted that SHE AND HIM (M. WARD and ZOOEY DESCHANEL) covered “When I Get to the Border” for a film soundtrack a few years ago and that it was their first recording together. While it’s a nice version, it doesn’t compare to the original!


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