“Old Sock” by Eric Clapton & “Electric” by Richard Thompson

Eric Clapton
Old Sock
Surfdog Records
1 star (out of 5)

Richard Thompson
Electric
New West Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Eric Clapton’s place as the godfather of rock guitarists is undisputed—of course because of his brilliant early work, but also because he seems like a nice guy who has outlived greater talents like Hendrix and Duane Allman—but as a solo artist his work has been erratic, reaching a new low with the fittingly—and frighteningly—named Old Sock. All of the adjectives it brings to mind apply to this 12-track, 53-minute set that nearly put me to sleep on a recent road trip.

There are only two new songs here—more about them later—and the remaining 10 are don’t seem to have been chosen for any other reason that the minimal effort they required. A folksy “Goodnight, Irene” and a syrupy “Born to Lose” (from Ray Charles’ country and western phase) would be bad enough, but tossing in three chestnuts from the so-called Great American Songbook in as well, all with shimmering strings and Roy Conniff-style backing vocals, is just painful, surpassing even the dreck that Rod Stewart has been shoveling for the last decade or so.

“Further on Down the Road” (Jesse Davis/Taj Mahal), “Till Your Well Runs Dry” (Peter Tosh), and “Your One and Only Man” (Otis Redding) sound like faux-reggae rejects from the 461 Ocean Boulevard sessions, while the late British blue guitarist Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues” is most assuredly devoid of any trace of the purported blues. A soft arrangement, a lazy vocal, and a brief guitar solo that could have been pieced together from three or four other solos from different songs just doesn’t cut it.

Neither of the new songs did Clapton write. “Gotta Get Over” almost comes to life, but not quite. It’s a decent song, with a decent vocal and lots of those familiar guitar fills that Clapton does better than anyone, but which have been done to death. The other original is “Every Little Thing,” which may have already wrapped up the award for worst track of 2013. Not only is it another of the faux-reggae lot, complete with a faux-Marley title, but its chorus halfway in assaults the listener with the worst sound that can be captured by a recording engineer: a children’s chorus. After this debacle, I’d be surprised if we ever got a good new track out of Clapton again.

However, the constant stream of great work from Richard Thompson continues. Electric was recorded in Nashville with Buddy Miller producing, with Thompson including, for the most part, just Taras Prodaniuk on bass, Michael Jerome on drums, and, occasionally, Siobhan Maher Kennedy on backing vocal. Without anything to hide behind, Thompson’s strengths as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist—both electric and acoustic—continue to amaze.

“Stony Ground,” “Sally B,” and especially “Stuck on the Treadmill” have the thump and heft of the sort of rock songs that aren’t getting made much these days: a cranky guy belting out pointed lyrics and driving the point home with guitar solos that sound like the gleam on a shiny new barbed-wire fence you glimpse as you’re about to hit it face-first after being thrown over the handlebars.

“Salford Sunday” and “Where’s Home?” have the folk tinge that Thompson’s work has had since his days with Fairport Convention, the latter featuring the incomparable Stuart Duncan on fiddle and some of the Buddy Miller sound that one might have expected on the rest of the disc. (I also wanted a Thompson/Miller guitar duel, but I guess Buddy knew better). “Straight and Narrow” is another rocker that Thompson does well—a grungy look at an unattainable, frustrating vamp—but I’ve never cared for the Farfisa organ sound.

Another Nashville luminary—Alison Krauss—lends her translucent voice to “The Snow Goose.” Though it’s only for a couple of slight passages, the two voices together are as as gorgeous as a summer sunset sliding through the clouds.

Thompson has always been able to write about the bitter and the sweet of mature relationships as well as anyone, and “Another Small Thing in Her Favour” and “Saving the Good Stuff for You” are two more that resonate more deeply than anything new I’ve heard lately.

“My Enemy” and “Good Things Happen to Bad People” are aptly situated near the middle of Electric, and they amount to 11 devastating minutes of haunting melody, harrowing guitar work, and a vocal/lyric meditation on self-hatred and contempt for the world that holds everyone to account. The effect is not quite cathartic, leaving the listener to deal with the scab that’s just been scraped off.

Electric is my frontrunner for this year’s best album, and it’s going to take something remarkable to change that.

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