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Critic's pick: Teddy Thompson

Teddy Thompson

A Piece of What You Need

On last year's fine album Upfront & Down Low, Teddy Thompson threw a still-blooming audience a curve ball by cutting a sampler of traditional country tunes. But under the covers of these covers lurked the greatest insight into his own sound — namely, a plaintive voice rich with stylistic wanderlust (and more than a touch of disciplined melancholy), the folkish gallantry of famous parents (Richard and Linda Thompson), and a sense or cunning reflected in production and song arrangements that often strayed from familiar country outlines. The music's desperate emotive state sounds positively elegant.

A Piece of What You Need borrows from that formula but shifts the focus completely to pop. This time, the songs, all ripe with deep melodic hooks, are his own, although production duties have been reassigned to Marius de Vries, whose credits include work with Madonna, Björk and Rufus Wainwright.

The results, at least in terms of the modern pop scenarios preferred by de Vries, are almost as traditional in scope as the country themes of Upfront & Down Low. Sift through the new tunes, and all kinds of familiar sounds call to you, from the Phil Spector-ish backbeat of the album's most immediately inviting pop delicacy, In My Arms, to the Badfinger-esque guitar riff that propels What's This?! And for those thinking that de Vries runs short of fresh ideas in such a rustic pop setting, check out how the streamlined shuffle of Can't Sing Straight, a song that especially recalls Thompson's dad's pensive recordings, gets a hearty push from the producer's deep-pocket horn arrangement.

Of course, what gives A Piece of What You Need its biggest kick is the contrast that Thompson's songs and singing bring to the party. Flying in the face of the album's hearty pop bounce are some severely moody story lines.

The Things I Do, for example, offers a full plate of literate self-loathing with a chirpy guitar/synth groove. ”I'm never happy, but at least I get some peace in this war,“ Thompson sings with a slight world-weary resignation. ”But I could use more.“ And on In My Arms, a tune that kicks into the sort of full-faced pop that could pass — at least initially, for the 1960s nugget My Boyfriend's Back — Thompson warns that his arms can be a pretty barren place to fall into (”it's a lonely world that I got“). The song is such a gale-force hullabaloo, though, that the groove quickly sweeps you past such romantic reticence.

The title tune, though, puts this wild pop party with the downbeat message in full perspective. Here, Thompson lashes out at a corporate music world that peddles makeshift cheer like Prozac (”So sing, soulless boy; give us some of your simple joy“). The melody then clouds with mariachi brass before devolving and fading altogether. e_SDHpAfter 10 minutes of silence, A Piece of What You Need kicks back into life to conclude with an uncredited cover of the Everly Brothers' hit The Price of Love. It recalls the roots reinvention of Upfront & Down Low, although the song's inherent unrest (”you talk too much, you laugh too loud, you see her face in every crowd“) fits right into A Piece of What You Need's narrative chill.

The album is a modest family affair, as well. Thompson trades guitar licks with father Richard on Slippery Slope (Easier) and harmonizes with sister Kamila on In My Arms. Mother Linda is part of the latter tune's hand-clap chorus.

But at this pop feast of musical jubilance and lyrical decay, Sir Teddy sits very much at the head of the table.