Richard Thompson has long been one of rock's greatest guitarists, but his virtuosity isn't revealed in pyrotechnics. It's more about the way that he makes everything he plays — whether a latter-day sea chantey, bard-worthy minstrel ballad or mournful rocker — seem so relaxed and easy. Front Parlour Ballads, Thompson's first solo acoustic disc since 1981's Strict Tempo!, has a timeless sound befitting a guy who recently released an album called 1000 Years of Popular Music. It's easy to imagine overhearing a bleary version of "Miss Patsy" (with its chorus of "Miss Patsy, won't you carry me home") coming from an open pub door at closing time; "The Boys of Mutton Street" sounds like something Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York would have sung while sharpening his knives. Thompson recorded Ballads at his home studio, layering multiple acoustic guitar parts over occasional bass, percussion and accordion to intimate (but not introverted) effect. A few tracks feel forced — such as the pained "My Soul, My Soul," with the repeated intonation of its title — but the majority have the effortless sound of a master who's been at it for four decades.
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