Popular music suffered a little-noted loss last year when Richard and Linda Thompson's eight-year recording career hit the rocks along with their increasingly contentious marriage. Though they never accumulated more than a cult audience here, the Thompsons set enormously high standards of lyrical, vocal and instrumental artistry. A singularly magnificent singer, Linda Thompson may yet achieve a more broad-based pop stardom on her own, but the special brilliance of the work that she and Richard did together was incalculably more than the sum of its parts — a fact that inevitably colors one's response to Hand of Kindness, Richard's first solo album since the split.
Even so, this is a richly rewarding record. For openers, it contains "Tear Stained Letter," the most irresistible rock & roll song Richard's ever written. Hooked on John Kirkpatrick's squalling accordion riff, the song inhabits some previously uncharted stylistic territory between a Highland fling and a Cajun cavort. Typically, the tune is given a furious workout by Thompson and his stellar band: ex-Fairport Convention mates Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks, plus Pete Zorn and Pete Thomas on saxes and Any Trouble's Clive Gregson on backup vocals. Equally appealing is the bobbling "Wrong Heartbeat," on which Richard's sinewy vocal is bolstered by huffing, R&B-style saxes and by Mattacks' crackling, almost timbalelike drumming.
Understated wonders abound: Thompson's yearning, wordless guitar-and-voice ornamentation at the end of the heartbroken "How I Wanted To"; his characteristically superb Stratocaster embellishments all over the title track; and the Dylanesque "Devon Side," with its stately melody and luminous violin solo (by Aly Bain of the Boys of the Lough). Only the zingy, intricate "Two Left Feet" and the relatively inconsequential "Both Ends Burning" might prove too folkish for noninitiates; the other six tracks are all winners. Thompson fans may well mourn Linda's absence, but on Hand of Kindness, there's still a lot left to love.