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Late is better than never

Folkie Linda Thompson returns from a 17-year hiatus with talent intact

The title of Linda Thompson's most recent album is an incredible understatement. 'Fashionably Late' (Rounder Records) was three years in the making, which is certainly a long time in the music business, but it represents Thompson's first album in 17 years. During that time, she literally had no singing voice.

Thompson, now 55, made her mark in collaboration with her former husband, Fairport Convention guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson. The six soulful English folk albums they recorded together between 1973 and 1982 were widely praised by the critics, with most of the laurels given to their debut record, 'I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.' It ended up on Britain's Mojo Magazine's Top 100 albums of all time, while Rolling Stone's Kurt Loder called it a 'timeless masterpiece.'

Thompson's specialty is giving a dignified voice to the ravaged dreams of the down and out, the losers who never had a chance. In songs such as 'Down Where the Drunkards Roll' and 'Walking on a Wire,' Thompson's weary, smoldering vocals carry a tangible sense of loss and regret over bad choices made. Yet this same voice is driven by an indefatigable will that won't surrender to misfortune.

After a disappointing solo record in 1985, Thompson succumbed to hysterical dysphonia, an anxiety-based disorder that left her unable to sing. Both onstage and in the studio, her voice would cramp up and fail. With three children to raise, Thompson turned away from singing and the music business, despite a loyal cult following.

This year's news that her dysphonia was under control and that a new Linda Thompson album was in the offing created a stir with critics and fans alike. It's quite a feat to return to the spotlight after nearly a 20-year absence, but the story wouldn't be half as compelling if the record was a flop.

Instead, 'Fashionably Late' is a triumphant return to form, with Thompson's voice as magnificent as ever. Twilight tunes such as 'All I See' and especially 'Banks of the Clyde,' the anguished lament of a fallen woman, are first-rate English-Celtic folk music and as good as anything in the Thompson song catalog.

Thompson's supporting cast on the album is impeccable: Contributions from Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Kate Rusby, Eliza and Martin Carthy, Van Dyke Parks, Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson (no relation) and Fairport Convention alums Dave Mattacks, Jerry Donahue and Dave Pegg, all lend 'Fashionably Late' an air of after-hours elegance.

Perhaps her most important co-star is her son, Teddy Thompson, who co-writes five songs, plays guitar and sings throughout. Her daughter Kamila provides some backing vocals, and on the lead track 'Dear Mary,' Thompson sings with not only Teddy and Kamila, but ex-husband Richard, who also delivers his usual ace guitar work. The long-absent hubby also provides subject matter for the last song on the record, 'Dear Old Man of Mine,' a recollection of memories sung like a bittersweet toast: 'Here's to the man that we thought was dead/Singing like he's got a gun to his head.'

With a strong album under her belt, Thompson is set for her first U.S. tour in 20 years. Teddy Thompson will serve as bandleader and opening act. Let's hope we won't have to wait quite so long for her next appearance and batch of new songs.

The Apples in Stereo

Velocity of Sound

(SpinART)

Managers for the Apples in Stereo sent a missive to fans recently asking them to join the Ambiguous League for Stereophonic Freedom. The league aims to 'spread the word of the Apples.'

While the offer sounds, uh, well, unattractive, it is easy to spread the word that 'Velocity of Sound,' the Apples' fifth full-length offering, is a whole big glop of noisy fun. The band continues to master the art of mixing sweet melodies with wall-of-sound guitars. Plus, to say the Apples have incredible hooks is to say Portland has a lot of bridges.

Even better news is that, as with other Apples recordings, leader Robert Schneider continues to perfect his production skills: 'Velocity' is the crispest Apples record yet, with big and loud guitars that aren't so overbearing that Schneider loses any subtleties within the songs or performances.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the music remains interesting as well. Highlights here include the Fastbacks-ish 'That's Something I Do,' the pub rock-like 'Better Days' and rave-up opener 'Please.' (Andy Giegerich)