Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Richard Thompson: 1000 Years Of Popular Music

Throughout the '00s, Richard Thompson has periodically performed variations on a program he calls "1000 Years Of Popular Music," in which his acoustic trio reaches from the 13th-century British ballad "Summer Is Icumen In" to Britney Spears' "Oops!… I Did It Again." The shows have been bootlegged widely, and one set was given a quasi-official release three years ago through Thompson's website. Now 1000 Years Of Popular Music is available in something like a finished form, on a two-CD/one-DVD collection that captures a recent San Francisco performance.


Thompson would probably admit that his concept is kind of cutesy, and maybe not as well-thought-out as it could be. Listening to the progression from minstrel tales like "King Henry" to courtly carols like "Remember O Thou Man" to music-hall rousers like "I Live In Trafalgar Square" to sleazy jitterbuggers like "Java Jive" and "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," it's easy to hear how the popular arts have become simultaneously coarser and more exciting. But the limited selection means that a lot of the story is missing, and while it's funny and kitschy to stick a song like "Oops" into the mix, it might've been more rewarding to find a song that's more listenable and more relevant. (Thompson hits the mark with his cover of Bowling For Soup's "1985," a song as descriptive in its way as the old coal-strike anthem "Blackleg Miner.")

Still, whatever its failings as enlightening social history, 1000 Years Of Popular Music remains a Richard Thompson album, benefiting from his honeyed voice and crystalline guitar picking. When Thompson latches onto a tune as richly sorrowful as the 17th-century ballad "Bonnie St. Johnstone," he could almost be singing something he wrote himself, and when he rushes through The Easybeat's garage classic "Friday On My Mind," his gruff, archaic tone makes the song sound like it was written in a pub a century ago.