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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Linda Thompson: "Fashionably Late"


In 1972, shortly after she married former Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson and became pregnant, the sometime folk and commercial jingle singer Linda Peters began suffering from a rare psychological disorder called hysterical dysphonia. "You open your mouth and nothing comes out," is how Linda described it in the liner notes of her greatest hits collection. Nevertheless, Linda and Richard Thompson went on to become arguably the most musically important married couple in the history of pop, and one can't help but wonder if Linda's ailment had something to do with it.

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The forced coolness of her singing, the feeling that she was giving all she had emotionally to even the quietest ballad, may have been a byproduct of the physical effort necessary to produce a sound. At the service of Richard's bitter wit and breezy cynicism, Linda's was the most heartbreaking vocal instrument of the '70s.

Following the divorce that coincided with the release of the Thompsons' dark masterpiece, "Shoot Out the Lights," in 1982, Linda recorded one mediocre solo album of art and pop songs and was in the midst of making a semi-country record when her condition became too much. She retired from music and settled down with a new family and a partnership in a London antique shop. Fifteen years down the road, she now delivers "Fashionably Late," a return to the kind of acoustic folk balladry that made her reputation.

Assisted mainly by son Teddy, who has inherited his father's knotty guitar style and talent for original folk melodies, Linda goes with her strengths: poise in the face of anguish and a singular ability to tell a story through nuance of feeling.

One doesn't even need to listen to the lyrics of "Miss Murray" or the murder ballad "Nine Stone Rig" to absorb the fate of their doomed protagonists. Accompanied by the likes of Martin Carthy, Richard Greene and Van Dyke Parks, with backing vocals from Kate Rusby and compositional input from Rufus Wainwright, the album has the aura of an event (there's even a track featuring Richard), but it's Linda's quiet intensity that's being served this time, and nowhere better than on Teddy's "All I See," which measures up to Richard & Linda classics like "Dimming of the Day" and "A Heart Needs a Home." In other words, it's the kind of haunting, heartsick love song that Linda used to own: slow, halting, deeply cathartic. Better late than never.



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