As a musician who's spent three decades not only building a rep as one of England's greatest rock guitarists, but also as the master of the acidic lyrical kiss-off, it's worth noting that Richard Thompson sounds downright conciliatory on Mock Tudor. It's right there in the song titles: "Dry My Tears and Move On," "Crawl Back Under My Stone," "That's All, Amen, Close the Door." Which is a far cry from the bitter (and arguably misogynous) rancor that's marked much of his solo career, and maybe not as fun as listening to the brilliant, tangled records he created with then-wife Linda through the '70s and early '80s, where the guilty pleasure was listening to them plant lyrical hatchets in each other's backs. But even if his 13th solo album showcases a kinder, gentler Thompson -- guitarwise, it's his most understated record -- it's a repose that fits the middle-aged Thompson well.
His musical obsessions (not to mention his sidemen) haven't changed much over his career; he still finds solace in the mannered British folk rock he cut his Fairport Convention teeth on, as well as the Motown, Bo Diddley shuffles, country, blues rock, and other distinctly American styles that become warped and extended in his agile hands. Now, though, he sounds less convinced that he has to prove his skill at the great guitar-pop song (the 1991 breakthrough Rumor and Sigh), the studied acoustic folk meditation (compiled on the excellent live Small Town Romance), or everything else (1996's bloated two-disc You? Me? Us?). For Mock Tudor, that leaves only songs -- simple, elegant, bittersweet, and generally depressing as all hell. The sole showoff piece is the caustic plea "Hard on Me," where Thompson's two dramatic solos dovetail with the clipped and desperate lines he's crying out ("Unzip my heart/ Unbraid my veins/ Unstitch my wantonness"). Mostly, though, his guitar is generally polite, winding its way around a sober, spare apology like "Dry My Tears," or "Uninhabited Man," the record's sole, sodden misstep. Or he's painting detailed pictures of people and places: rave-ups like the opening "Cooksferry Queen," the lushly produced and soaring "Bathsheba Smiles," or the "Sights and Sounds of London Town," a documentary of urban life caught in the tracking lens of his sharp fingerpicking.
The bitter Richard Thompson of old crops up only on the threatening, spare "Hope You Like the New Me," which closes the album. Guitar strings rattling slowly, like chains, he plays the burned and beaten suitor: "I stole your soul when you weren't looking/ I reached inside and cut it free/ It suits me more than it ever suited you." Scary right down to its minor-key fade, it's in keeping with much of the bloodshed that marks his relationship songs. But it also sounds like the first time he feels something for the body on the floor. That's called maturity.
-- Mark Athitakis
If Julie Miller were a beautiful loser, she might be this year's Lucinda Williams or Richard Buckner. Instead, she's a happily married, better than average, God-lovin' Nashville singer/songwriter. These factoids might not resonate with her best potential audience -- the people who for nearly 30 years have tried to wrest something positive from the ugly death of Gram Parsons, Americana/No Depression's patron saint. But maybe redemption is in the work of Miller, herself a Parsons devotee and frequent collaborator with his old partner, Emmylou Harris.
Harris (and oddly, Little Jimmy Scott) have already recorded Miller's folk ballad "All My Tears"; on Broken Things, she sings her song in her very best twang with her husband, Buddy Miller, on guitar and vocals; Steve Earle plays mandolin. Harris joins Miller for the traditional Civil War ballad "Two Soldiers," as well as on the title track, one of those quiet studies on whether a damaged heart can ever be mended. Among the other players on board: Victoria Williams, Patty Griffin, and former NRBQ bassist Joey Spampinato. Clearly, musicians are familiar with Miller as the angel-voiced, occasional songwriter and better half of singer/guitarist Buddy; hard-core roots music fans heard her solo debut, Blue Pony. Most people didn't.
At times her voice mimics her psychic soul sister Williams (with whom she sings on the folky dirge "Orphan Train"); not surprising since Miller was one of the original Rolling Creek Dippers, a band Williams put together with her husband, Mark Olson (formerly of the Jayhawks), Buddy, and Jim Lauderdale. Miller is the least loopy of the bunch, but she and Williams have a vocal connection as eerie and vital as heard on the hillbilly songs of the Louvin Brothers and the Carter Family. On the rock songs, like "I Need You," Miller uses that irritating little-girl vocal quality that Sheryl Crow took to the top of the charts, but the difference is that Miller's strength comes through her vulnerability. And it's more authentic, if only because she wrote it herself.
"I Still Cry" is a beautiful, grief-stricken duet with singer Patty Griffin, whose voice again blends exquisitely with Miller's; accordion and cello punctuate the loss the song conveys. Appropriately, reformed addict Earle adds to the clanking cocaine blues "Strange Lover." The final love song "The Speed of Light" is just Julie on guitar and Buddy on harmonium. It's effective and a nice tribute to the couple. who do a very old-fashioned -- though not very fashionable -- job of making sweet music together.
-- Denise Sullivan