Teddy Thompson & special guest Steve Schiltz (Longwave & Hurricane Bells) - 3/3
at City Winery New York City
On previous discs, singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson always relied on one of the songs he’s written to provide him with an album title and a central concept to build the rest of his work around. This time it’s different: you won’t find a tune named “Bella” on his fourth Verve Forecast effort yet the idea of “bella” — Italian shorthand for “beautiful” — is everywhere. Says Thompson, “I like the word, the meaning of it. It spoke to the lushness and beauty I was going for.”
Recorded in New York City and produced by David Kahne (Regina Spektor, Paul McCartney, the Strokes), Bella combines lean rock and roll with lush string arrangements on material that is both disarmingly catchy and often startlingly frank. Since 2008′s A Piece Of What You Need, which London’s The Guardian called “one of the year’s best,” this has become something of a Thompson trademark, teasing the listener with immediately addictive melodies then pulling the rug out from under them with unsparingly confessional or darkly amusing lyrics. Thompson agrees: “I felt, as I’ve developed some kind of style, that what I had to offer, that what came naturally, was my sense of humor, my sensibility. It’s very English, very sarcastic, self-deprecating, In one way, that’s just how my songs come out; in another way, that’s my favorite style: a pretty melody with a twist.”
Throughout Bella, Thompson is a refreshingly candid Romeo: On upbeat lead-off track, “Looking For A Girl,” he lists all the qualities he wants in a woman – “I’m looking for a girl who drinks and smokes/Who takes a lot of work but can take a joke” – along with everything he needs to warn a prospective lover about. He’s never less than honest, revealing bad-boy inclinations alongside his kindlier attributes, with all of it sung in Thompson’s singularly stirring voice, one that musically and emotionally can never render a false note.
Thompson is able to poke fun of himself on a track like “The One I Can’t Have,” but he can also turn more bluntly self-lacerating. On “Over and Over,” the starkest arrangement on Bella, he enumerates the ways he falls short as strings circle ominously around his hauntingly tortured vocal. Admits Thompson, “That’s my specialty. I love to do that. I still feel that songwriting is really an introspective thing. For most people it’s all about themselves, but it depends on how you lay it out. Even people who write songs that aren’t so obviously autobiographical are still working from themselves. I don’t try that hard to disguise it. I take the easy way out: I write exactly what comes to mind. I’m the person I know the best, the one I like the best and hate the best, so I can get right in there.”
Though in conversation Thompson doesn’t elaborate too much, Bella also examines the end of a relationship, the afterimage of a woman he left behind or let slip away. On songs like “Delilah,” a country-inflected slow dance, and “Take Me Back Again,” which boasts a gorgeous Phil Spector-style production, Thompson ruminates about a romance gone wrong and contemplates the position of a guy left to endlessly yearn. This heartbreak theme reaches its apotheosis in “Tell Me What You Want,” a duet with friend and fellow singer Jenni Muldaur;. Thompson cajoles but Muldaur brushes him off, as twanging guitars, strings and percussion swirl around them; the vocals soar to Roy Orbison-like heights by the final chorus.
Thompson is a native Englishman who has adopted New York City as his home; famously the son of singer-songwriters Richard and Linda Thompson, he emigrated to the states more than a decade ago, barely out of his teens, to embark on a career of his own. Thompson began working on the material for Bella after he returned from his last tour; he structured his writing sessions by going to a Manhattan office each day where he developed these songs, honing in as a recording deadline loomed. He’d admired producer Kahne’s work and decided to contact him through a musician friend. Explains Thompson, “I was searching for someone who was quite poppy but who had a really musical sensibility. I mostly have worked with people I knew I was going to get along with, but David I just didn’t know at all. We butted heads a few times, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing; he helped light a fire under me in certain ways. It definitely stretched things musically as well because it took me out of my confidence zone quite a lot. It was very different than any other record making process — an amazing, exhausting experience.”
Using his touring band – Ethan Eubanks (drums), Jeff Hill (bass), Daniel Mintseris (keyboards) – Thompson and Kahne cut basic tracks at Avatar in midtown Manhattan, the former site of the legendary Power Station. Says Thompson: “It was quite old-school recording studio, which there aren’t many of anymore. It felt almost decadent, making an old fashioned record in a big studio. We did the strings there, which were great. In the first few weeks, when we were going into the big room, I felt like I was really going to make a record as opposed to going into some little room with computer screens, which it so often is these days. We definitely did a lot of that later on. At least in the beginning it was very rock and roll.”
Thompson had specific ideas of how he wanted to employ strings: “Initially I was thinking of Buddy Holly’s records, the later ones, where there were maybe an eight -or ten-piece string section. I had also been listening to a Jackie DeShannon greatest hits CD, and there were string arrangements all over the place. The arrangements were very out of the ordinary in the sense that there were pop people writing string arrangements rather than traditional string arrangers coming in and writing for a pop artist. On the DeShannon tracks, aside from everything Jack Nitzsche did, there were arrangements written by pop people like Carole King. You got the idea that they were serving the song and the melody without too many preconceptions about what an arrangement should be. ”
Kahne, it turned out, was able arrange the strings himself, enabling Thompson to realize his vision: “It was really uncharted territory. I didn’t know David as a string arranger and we hadn’t decided that he was going to do that and we hadn’t decided how prominent the strings were going to be. They became prominent because David just nailed it.
“In a way, “Thompson concludes, “the production was quite analytical and studied, yet a lot of the singing was very live and loose. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do, my ultimate goal for every record — to make it really well arranged and sound really good but at the same time to be off the cuff and natural. Which is kind of the hardest thing to do.”
With Bella, Thompson clearly didn’t take the easy way out. — Michael Hill