For Teddy Thompson, the idea of Thompson Family was fairly straight forward, just ask the various members of his incredibly talented family to write a couple of songs each, record the results and see what came of it. Taking the reins, setting up recording sessions in several different studios to accommodate the spread of the family, he’s proved a sympathetic master. He’s spoken of his delight at having control over his parents, but it all seems a little tongue in cheek as he’s actually managed to capture some excellent and also varied performances from three generations of the family and even involved some of the non-professional musical talents. For their part, the family have obliged with a fine set of songs and perhaps a little, natural competitive streak has ensured a certain quality throughout. There can be few if any more talented musical families and the proof is right here.There must have been periods of time when the making of the making of a Thompson family album seemed like a longshot. It’s not so much the reconciling of tensions, rivalries and differences, but the fact that as individuals, the family have just been so busy. If you look at their history since Teddy launched his career properly as a solo artist at the turn of the millennium, between his parents Richard and Linda, sister Kami and himself, they’ve released very nearly 20 albums. Add in all of the touring, special one off shows, Meltdown festival, session work and guest appearances and… Well I’m sure you get the picture.
Of course, the busiest of them all has been Richard, currently on a run of three albums in three years, but you have to factor in that Kami is really in the early stages of her own music making, having already featured as a singer with a host of notable others, whilst Linda had been silenced, quite literally, by a stress related condition, spasmodic dysphonia, that stopped her singing altogether. Whilst her artistic recovery has been complete, the condition, however, requires that her output is steadily rather than spectacularly paced.If anything, it’s the albums that Linda has made that have suggested that the idea of a wider Thompson family album might be a goer. For starters teddy has been heavily involved and integral to the making of all three. But the others, Kami and Richard have made their contributions. Guitarist Zak Hobbs, who is even less advanced than Kami career wise, especially now that The Rails are up and running, added a third generation of the dynasty to Linda’s recent Won’t be Long Now. Here he takes it a stage further and contributes one song to the pool. Richard’s son from his second marriage, Jack Thompson also takes credit for one contribution. To round off the writers, Kami shares two of the credits with partner and fellow Rail James Welbourne.
The above form the core of performers on the album too, but there are some extras including Teddy’s elder sister Muna. Now Muna Mascolo, she’s one of the Thompson clan who isn’t a professional musician, as is Pauline Lis, the wife of Jesse Thompson. James Walbourne’s brother Rob is also on hand to add some extra instrumentation, notably drums to several tracks, while Brooke Gengras is the final name in the credits, although I’ll confess to not knowing exactly where she fits in.
While the work that Teddy did on Linda’s last record might have suggested how this album could work, given momentum by the haunting sentiments of its title track, he has admitted that the record is also a response to his own turmoil, which included a degree of personal creative drought. He’s also candidly admitted that his therapist had a field day when he found out about the project. Teddy was just six when his parent split up, their disintegrating marriage and professional commitments to tour as a duo meeting in a car crash, that has been described as the ‘tour from hell.’ So here’s Teddy some 32 years later trying to close the rift and bring the family back together.
His strategy seems to have been to throw the idea out there and sit back and wait for the results, trusting in the ability of one and all. Although a little cajoling was necessary, once the basic tracks were in, Teddy set about fleshing them out and here he’s shown his skill in blending the obviously abundant talent, not allowing anyone to dominate. In many ways it’s quite understated, some of it even a little raw, actually creating a natural feel to several of the songs, adding an extra emotive edge as they simply sound honest.It’s interesting to read in the press release that Teddy’s own torpor was such that he had only readied one song himself. In some ways that proved a blessing as working on the material finally inspired him to write a second song, Family, which opens the album. It’s wry opening verse documents the fate of any musician trying to step out of the shadow of their famous parents and includes the line, “Sean Lennon you know what I mean.” Teddy and Sean know each other and Kami has also toured with the only son of John and Yoko, so the line is doubtless well informed.
Teddy mines deeper, however, with hints of the hurt that has prevented him, thus far at least, from continuing the family line. The self deprecating humour and admonishment is fairly typical of how Teddy can hit a nerve that many will instantly recognise and painfully honest, but enjoyably so, a country tinged waltz simply but beautifully played with Zak and Teddy on acoustic guitars. Despite the songs premise Teddy is actually a very accomplished writer and has an excellent voice.
The next song is Richard’s and a much fuller arrangement. It’s one of his withering put downs, that turns the usually positive message behind the phrase One Life At A Time into something much more barbed, with the lines, “If you’re busy living your life, you won’t be living mine.” Quite who it’s aimed at and why is unclear, but it builds steadily, with a sense that it’s personal. One of Teddy’s tricks is to share around the lead guitar duties, so that the writer doesn’t get to solo on their own song, as in this case the electric guitar parts are taken by Zak, who acquits himself very well.
The sonic build continues upwards into Kami’s delightful, poppy Careful as she cautions lust is not enough to sustain a man. Its lithe melody is pushed along with a backing chorus from Paulina and Teddy, while Kami’s lead is superb. James takes the bass and brother Rob adds drums and this time it’s Richards turn to add a typically inventive lead line. Intriguingly Kami has said that her original thought was to write her allotted two songs about Teddy, offering a Jeckyl & Hyde style portrait, before admitting that she veered off course. Even if her target has changed, there’s a louche character in need of love’s salvation here.
The first of Linda’s two songs, Bonny Boys, is co-written with Zak who also plays an excellent acoustic guitar accompaniment, while Teddy adds his voice as an occasional highlight. It’s the closest the record gets to anything that sound from the folk tradition, as perhaps suggested by the title, but the song finds Linda in reflective mode. It’s haunting, with an elegiac beauty and has a similar sentiment to It Won’t Be Long Now in the closing lines, “The piper calls and I must heed, when the curlew flying low think of me.” There’s a tremor in Linda’s voice, adding an extra frisson of mortality as the family theme is developed through a mother’s love.
If that song benefits from its simple setting, then so to does Zak’s Root So Bitter. Whilst it’s a little unfair to compare directly, Zak’s voice isn’t the purest of the Thompson clan. His guitar playing is, however, very much up to par and he accompanies himself here with just the addition of hurdy gurdy from Richard and Teddy on Pump organ adding a subtle swell and drone. Again by keeping things simple and not trying to sweeten the song, it brings that honesty mentioned above, while the song deals with the trials of a relationship, which Finds Zak complaining, “As narrow as a church door is your love.”
Sticking with the younger generation, Jack’s contribution is completely different to anything else, a somewhat amorphous, but nonetheless atmospheric instrumental At The Feet Of The Emperor. His bass meanders as he plucks and strums across the strings and explores and extemporises with an unrestrained freedom, while Richard adds washes of guitar that blur the form further. It’s a bold move, but works in context providing an intermission and also offering something genuinely experimental into the mix.
Teddy’s country rocker, Right, returns us to song. It’s a cracker too and an object lesson in why you shouldn’t break the heart of a songwriter. Teddy castigates someone who loves to be right, before having the final say in, “It must be blowing you mind that you were wrong and that I’m telling the world in this song.” Touché! There’s some nifty guitar from James and Jack on slide and an almost rockabilly lick driving the song along.
Linda and Teddy share the credit for Perhaps We Can Sleep, which changes the pace again, slowing things down with heavily weighted piano chords. Here Linda tackles the other side of love and there’s a lingering sense of regret amidst the hope of reconciliation that in the end, “Perhaps we can sleep, perhaps we can dream, let the body rest, let the spirit sing.” It’s the rawest and most emotionally forceful of the collection and once more the simplicity of the arrangement works in its favour.
Richard’s That’s Enough is one of his more overtly political songs as he rails against the lies, false alibis and fairy dust in the eyes that are the common currency of our masters. Most significantly he sings, “Can’t get a job, can’t pay the rent, can’t feed ourselves, the money’s all spent.” The haves have it all and the rest are increasingly left without the basic provisions as the gaps in society widen. It’s a strong song with once again Zak playing mandolin and giving James a chance to muscle in, as the song takes on a rowdy tub thumping character, enhanced by the resonating doumbek or goblet drum.
Adding a neat bookend in another country tinged waltz, I Long For Lonely, this time from the partnership of Kami and James. It’s another take on family, this time with Kami lamenting the lack of personal space, as husband, child and even the dog and the cat are pressing in on her within the confines of a flat too small for a moments peace and quiet.
Review by: Simon Holland
Out Now available via Amazon (UK)
The first two shows (already sold out) will take place December 18th and 19th at Kings Place in London, UK. The Thompson family will follow those shows with three nights at New York’s City Winery, January 29th, 30th and 31st, 2015, their only performances in North America – click here to see more.