Monday, August 2, 2010

House of Cards (Band of Joy song of the week, No. 6 of 12)

On an album consisting of a lot of Americana covers, "House of Cards" is an exception. Its authors are Richard Thompson and Linda Thompson, two folk musicians with London upbringings. However, some characteristics of the song make it a perfect fit for the new album from Robert Plant. There's more to this selection than the simple fact that Plant is a longtime admirer of Richard Thompson's -- and that by covering a song of his, he is returning the favor Thompson paid him about 18 years ago when he guested on the recording sessions for Plant's Fate of Nations: Thompson is one of three guitarists who can be heard on the song "Come into My Life."

Richard was a one-time member of one of Robert Plant's favorite British bands, the folk group Fairport Convention; he was a founding member of the band and served as one of the two guitarists (alongside Simon Nicol) from 1967 to 1971, recording five albums during that period. After going solo, he began to release albums with his newlywed bride, singer Linda Thompson. In the mid 1970s, the couple's strong religious convictions sidetracked their recording career in the mid '70s, and they withdrew completely from the music world for a few years. Their return followed in 1978, when their next album, First Light, was poised to be their comeback. It is on this album that "House of Cards" appears, stuffed away near the end of the album, just before the title track concludes it. From time to time, this position is where vinyl gems are mined.

Under the production of engineer John Wood and Richard Thompson, the album features him on vocals and most of the instruments: guitar, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, Roland guitar, synthesizer, and whistle. Former Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks shows up on percussion, alongside Chris Karen. Guitarist Simon Nicol, then in his second stint with Fairport, also joins the studio lineup on guitar and dulcimer. Willie Weeks on bass and Andy Newmark on drums provide rhythm. Parts of the album also benefit from an orchestra conducted by Robert Kirby, and John Kirkpatrick assists on accordion, with Neil Larson on keyboards.

But perhaps the most impressive of all the credits is this: In addition to both Thompsons on vocals, the album lists no fewer than 11 background singers. As such, Richard and Linda Thompson make plentiful use of backing vocals on their original "House of Cards." All the singers' harmonies on this track border on majestic. There was an attempt on the part of the Band of Joy to recreate this regal blend in their live readings last month, with the voices of Darrell Scott, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller swelling up with Plant's into a rich aural experience. It was quite evident during their concert performances of this song in particular.

The harmonies on "House of Cards" see Plant digging deeper into the richness of backing vocals. "I really wanted this record to be a band of joy," says Plant, in the electronic press kit released by Rounder Records last week. "I wanted to hear voices all around my voice. If you go back throughout my career, there weren't enough tracks on the tape -- or there wasn't enough time in between one insane misreading of history and the next one -- to bother about backing vocals. It was of very little use in Led Zeppelin."

In that regard, Raising Sand was an eye-opener for him as it made him a team player alongside Alison Krauss. He said at the time that he was approaching harmony in ways that he'd never done so before: "I'd always liked harmony singing, but I'd never been a part of anything in any band that ever went anywhere near harmony work, you know? You may put a third on as a part of the chorus or something back in the day, but not much." On Band of Joy, the harmony singing is sure to stand out on at least two other album tracks, "I'm Falling in Love Again" and "Silver Rider."


  1. This is great music history summarized. We're connecting the dots out here, thank you !

  2. This was wonderful to read. Can you tell me where on earth I can go to buy the original "House of Cards" from "First Light" ? I have searched iTunes but to no avail. Many thanks

  3. I am not aware of it being available digitally. I bought "First Light" second-hand on vinyl just to hear the song.


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