Richard Thompson is surely one of the greatest songwriters and artists never to achieve any measure of commercial fame. However, his high reputation among musicians is unchallenged, and Beat the Retreat is a fine collection of covers of some of Thompson's greatest songs. There are two kinds of successes on this record. The first kind is when artists completely re-envision Thompson's original compositions. Good demonstrations of this are such tracks as Bob Mould's take on "Turning of the Tide," which puts a punk spin on Thompson's paean to a seaside prostitute. In a similar manner, the Dinosaur Jr. version of "I Misunderstood" transfers the angst of the original into a Generation X cry of despair. The second kind of success on Beat the Retreat are straight-up covers that are just excellently and passionately performed. The Maddy Prior/Martin Carthy readings of "Farewell, Farewell" and "The Great Valerio" are simply chilling in their intensity. Likewise, Bonnie Raitt's gritty voice adds an appealing bluesiness to "When the Spell Is Broken." The Shawn Colvin/Loudon Wainwright III cover of "A Heart Needs a Home," though lacking the subtlety of Thompson's version, has a sweetness and a purity that is truly revelatory. There are moments on this record that don't work, like X's cover of "Shoot out the Lights" or David Byrne's "Just the Motion," but June Tabor's lovely a cappella "Genesis Hall" or Los Lobos' insightful "Down Where the Drunkards Roll" make this record worth its purchase price for all who have been seduced by Thompson's genius.
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AllMusic Review by Daniel Gioffre