Friday, 11 February 2011
Teddy Thompson - Bella
His latest album is finally fully on the scene and it should garner the popularity and recognition his previous work was more than capable of producing, but hasn't. Perhaps it is the media-savvy promotion as much as the popish tunes that will generate a wider appeal.
I have been a committed fan for some time now and saw Teddy Thompson perform a few years ago in promotion of A Piece of What You Need - perhaps his best album - and am excited about seeing him in two weeks' time as he promotes Bella.
It has been interesting to follow advance reviews of this album as well as those over the last few days. By and large there is a collective appreciation of Thompson's considerable talent and a feeling that this work will be his most successful. My view is that he is an outstanding songwriter and glorious singer. Most mention the parental pedigree and that must matter, but I see this as producing the rich musical environment of his growing up rather than some genetically transferred expertise. Just listen to the brilliant duet Teddy does with dad Richard on 'Persuasion' [not this album] and the distinctiveness of the vocals is crystal clear, and moving.
Over four previous albums Thomson has established a poised heart-on-sleeve and cheeky-chappy approach to songwriting, though the Country focused Upfront and Down Low is less so in this respect. I mention this because his way with words matters. There are couplets upon couplets of clever rhymes one could celebrate, but I think the storytelling bristles with sincerity as much as it does with wit.
Another reason I mention this is because the only tinge of criticism of Bella has been for some of its lyrics. I don't know if this is a gender issue - I can't be assed to look further being a lazy sort of bloke - but Hermione Hoby writing in The Observer considers some of the lyrics in the album are 'misjudged'. It's just opinion of course, and I warm to her line 'A Piece of What You Need was full of finely-tuned self-laceration and sharp humour' but she feels his lyrical edge on Bella has been 'blunted'. The lyric to exemplify this, and mentioned in other reviews, is from the song 'Looking for a Girl' and goes 'I'm looking for a girl who's good in bed/But knows when it's time to knock it on the head'. I have to assume Hoby's concern is with its dismissive tone. Yet the song is more appalling than this as it progresses in the establishment of a manifesto for girlfriend criteria, but that appallingness is surely the bombast of the joke. My reading is supported comically by further lyrics, though presumably these are the other 'misjudged' ones in Hoby's admittedly only brief reservation: the song 'The One I Can't Have' produces more playful Thompson couplets
'I was born with love disease
It's known as chronic hard-to-please
I want one I can't have
Given choices A and B
I'll probably go with option C'
Plenty of arrogant male swagger here with Samson and Gregory meeting their match [minus the crudities]. Yet the macho banter is tempered by the self-deprecation of knowing he won't get the girl, and the comic acknowledgement that he falls in love with women seen on TV and in a magazine. It's a joke. And back at 'Looking For a Girl': you know that anyone with Thompson's intelligent lyrical self-laceration is clearly taking the piss with a line like 'someone who turns my bread to buttered toast'. This song is definitely onside for me. Not a gray area about this at all.
To the tracks as a whole, finally, though that said, I have to start with the opener 'Looking For a Girl'. This will surely bring the album to that desired wider attention as radio's reactorlight views it through an accommodating lens. It is pop music for foot-tapping and smiles. This is followed by 'Delilah' with its sweeping strings to waft along the more genuinely romantic love of the lyrics, and this orchestration becomes a feature of the album as a whole. Indeed, having already stated my favourite Thompson album I would say that APOWYN and also Separate Ways best reflect the songwriters' craft and brilliance whereas Bella with its arrangements and production reflect additional preoccupations, not just to sell - though that must be a significant consideration - but to provide expanse to Thompson's oeuvre.
The third track 'I Feel' is a rock'n'roller as are others on the album [a genuine homage with his stated love for 50s music, particularly the Everly Brothers]. The variety of this album is reflected immediately in the next 'Over and Over', which is more traditionally Thompson material with its major to minor tones, but also its Arabian instrumentation adding the surprise. The fifth 'Take Me Back Again' is the Country insurgent with twang guitar, but only at the start before the dancing strings and eventual kettle drums and tubular bells. This also has a classic Thompsonesque song structure with a succession of sung descending lines, starting at his falsetto top, and an echo of Roy Orbison. This is a busy song, full of arrangement.
The sixth is a duet 'Tell Me What You Want' with Jenni Muldaur and again has a rock'n'roll ballad echo. The next 'Home' is simple picked acoustic guitar but with another layer of strings and recounts the domestic dominance of returning home. Little oboe rolls creep in near the end and there is by now a sense of over-production. There is no question for me that the collection of tracks cannot compete with the originality and impact of those from the proceeding two albums - it is the production being foregrounded here, but again that is because I prefer the solo songwriter genre above this.
The next one is 'The Next One' and has some fine guitar work in it. The ninth track is interesting for a number of reasons. It's opening strummed chords are clearly based on those of 'So Easy' from Thompson's first album but it is the sustained falsetto singing that is both striking and noted by reviewers. It is striking because it is faultless but I prefer to hear Thompson moving in and out of this range. If, however, a new Stylistics formed and needed a Russell Thompkins, Jr. vocal clone for lead singer, the job is Teddy's, but I think as fans we'd hate for him to take it!
The penultimate track is the jaunty 'The One I Can't Have' already mentioned. The album closes on 'Gotta Have Someone' with punchy rhythms swathed in those sweeping strings again and there is a danger that Thompson's vocals are overpowered by the arrangements. The lyric has a strong and positive sentiment to conclude.
The close focus of this review has made me sound more negative that I want, both in terms of inclination and how it sums up the whole of this album. I have such a strong attachment to those outstanding songs from earlier albums that this does force itself as a comparison upon this album's more polished, in production terms, overall impact. It is an excellent album that adds breadth in its fifth notch on what I hope continues to be a succession of great Teddy Thompson albums to savour.