CD Review of A Piece of What You Need by Teddy Thompson
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Teddy Thompson:
A Piece of What You Need

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


tepping into your parents’ shoes is never easy – especially in a professional setting, and even more especially when that profession puts you on a national stage. The only thing human beings love more than a sequel, after all, is to stand around and talk about how much that sequel sucks. Teddy Thompson, son of beloved British rock icons/famous divorcees Richard and Linda Thompson, stepped into bigger shoes than most when he released his self-titled debut in 2000; though neither of his parents have ever been big sellers, they’ve both seen more than their fair share of rave reviews, and the odds of that critical favor skipping a generation seemed fairly high.

As it happened, Teddy ended up slipping comfortably into the elder Thompsons’ sales-starved-but-critically-worshiped boots – and he’s refused to run away from his second-generation status, rubbing musical shoulders on a semi-regular basis with fellow sequels (and friends) Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Though neither Thompson nor the Wainwrights bear much of a sonic relation to the loins from which they sprang, they’ve all managed to defy the odds, turning out some of the best, most interesting pop music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Among the crop of famous sons and daughters that have cast their own musical lot in the last decade (a group that also includes Harper Simon, Alexa Ray Joel, and – wait for it – Miley Cyrus), Teddy Thompson has always been the least interesting from a publicists’ standpoint. All of his peers have an easy “hook” – Rufus is gay, Martha wrote a song about her dad being an asshole, Perez Hilton made Alexa cry, Miley let the world see her shoulder blades – while Thompson has never been anything more, or less, than an old-fashioned singer/songwriter. Partially as a result, his first three albums have been some of the industry’s better-kept secrets of the last 10 years.

The same fate will probably befall his fourth release, A Piece of What You Need – but if it’s any comfort to Teddy, it might be his best album yet.

Coming on the heels of last year’s Up Front and Down Low, a frustratingly inessential collection of covers, this breezy set (45 minutes and a dozen songs) acts as a bridge between the relatively straightforward sound of his debut and the more experimental sounds of 2005’s intermittently brilliant Separate Ways. Overseen by Marius de Vries, a producer Thompson met while making a cameo appearance on a – surprise! – Rufus Wainwright record, A Piece of What You Need finds Thompson moving past the heartbreak and quarterlife ennui that fueled his first two albums and finding happiness. Nobody is more surprised by this than Thompson – as he puts it in the second track, “What’s This?!” “What’s this? / What’s this? / Am I happy or something? / Oh shit, oh shit / Am I happy or something?”

Happy or not, Thompson hasn’t lost his gift for moody balladry. Although A Piece of What You Need is certainly more up-tempo than previous efforts, it still allows plenty of room for the moody balladry that his golden pipes were made for – songs like “Slippery Slope (Easier),” “Where to Go from Here,” and album opener “The Things I Do” find him weighted down with all the world-weariness and regret that can fit in a 32-year-old body. He’s always been an above-average songwriter and talented crooner, but here, he really seems to be making a case for himself as a career artist – the type of performer who actually, you know, grows and matures between releases. Remember them?

A Piece of What You Need marks the first time Thompson has fully handed over the reins to an outside producer, and the decision paid off – de Vries keeps things interesting (strings, horns, the works) while successfully avoiding clutter, and the country-tinged arrangements compare favorably to late-period Nick Lowe albums (with a bigger budget and fewer gray hairs, of course). They may need to put their ears to the ground to hear them, but fans of smartly written, tightly crafted adult pop music would do well to seek out these songs – it’s hard to believe that many better ones will come along before the year is out.

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