Wild Mercury Sound

Linda Thompson's Versatile Heart

John Mulvey

I guess there are a few recurring subjects on Wild Mercury Sound, little hives of activity that I seem to keep visiting again and again. Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label is one, and I need to tell you about the mighty new Magik Markers LP sometime soon. But the extended, diverse and interwoven Thompson and Wainwright folk dynasties is definitely another.

Like the turnout for Rufus Wainwright's "Release The Stars", the gang's all here for this rare and lovely album by Linda Thompson - even Richard Thompson, in spirit, who contributed "the idea" for the verses on "Blue & Gold". That song was actually written by Linda and their son, Teddy Thompson, whose contributions here are so strong that they make me want to revisit those solo records of his that I always found rather bland and underwhelming.

Teddy's best friend Rufus is here, of course, having written a quite brilliant song, "Beauty", especially for the project. Wainwright has a good grasp of the extent of Linda's talents, I think: he doesn't just see her as this stern siren of British folk, he understands how well her voice works in more theatrical settings. Consequently, "Beauty" is both vivacious and restrained, a chamber piece with a subtly roistering undertow. Rufus' friend (keep up!) Antony Hegarty joins in, too, and it's nice to hear his more playful, bluesy gargle instead of the pining melancholic thing that he normally brings out for his numerous guest appearances.

Martha Wainwright is here too, inevitably, adding harmonies to possibly Teddy and Linda's best song, "The Way I Love You" (John Kirkpatrick, the accordionist who was such a critical part of the Richard & Linda set-up in the '70s, drops in on this one, too). There's also a good song, "Nice Cars", by a scion of the tribe previously unknown to me, daughter Kamila Thompson, plus various Carthys, Maria Muldaur's daughter Jenni, and the great string arranger Robert Kirby.

A couple of things occur to me, having just written all this. One is that there's a risk - which I've totally fallen into - of cataloguing the guest stars at the expense of Linda Thompson herself. In fact, she's a still, luminous presence in the centre of all the comings and goings, her voice still possessing all the grave strength of her '70s heyday. The supporting cast are, thankfully, discreet players, and it's remarkable how uncluttered "Versatile Heart" is.

We've been working our way through quite a few versions of "Katie Cruel" in the last few months (most notably those by Karen Dalton and Bert Jansch), but Linda Thompson has a decent crack at it, too; a faster trot through than most. Better still, she takes Tom Waits' anti-war lament, "Day After Tomorrow", and probably betters the original. It's a great song for Thompson, ideally suited for the mix of solemn authority and compassion that seems to come so easily to her.

I guess the other fear about concentrating on the famous circle of friends and relations so much, is that the whole clan might sometimes seem like a cosy (if historically dysfunctional) elite. The feel of "Versatile Heart", however, is that kind of intimate musical understanding which the folk world treasures so highly; one song here is a tribute to Bob Copper, who celebrated the pleasure and power of singing with your family so effectively.

I'm reminded, most of all, of a show on London's South Bank a few years ago, which was ostensibly a family and friends session involving Rufus, Martha, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Linda and Teddy and one or two other second cousins whose names escape me. It was like being ushered into the home of a family whose singalongs somehow managed not to be self-indulgent or in-jokey, whose warmth kind of inducted you into their charmed circle. That's the vibe of "Versatile Heart".

But anyway, the Reviews Ed has just put Alice Coltrane on and the artroom are hassling me for copy. PJ Harvey tomorrow, all being well.


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