critic’s pick 164

On his fine new Bella album, the stylistic canyon between Teddy Thompson and his famed British folk-rock father Richard Thompson widens and clears. As that least that’s the case when the subject is romance.

When the elder Thompson looks into the wellspring of love and desire, he sees an abyss. When son Teddy takes a glance, he discovers something more hopeful but no less fatalistic.

But the cultural division between the two Thompsons has always been distinct, even though father Richard has played guitar on each of his eldest son’s recordings (including this new one). Dad will forever be a disciple of British folk-rock tradition while Teddy, now 35, has released two consecutive albums that operate from a crisply produced, pure pop perspective. Of course, the younger Thompson arrived in the broadest regions of the pop marketplace after first taking a wildly intriguing detour through vintage orchestral country on 2007’s sublime Upfront & Down Low.

Bella picks up where 2008’s A Piece of What You Need left off. The latter was the album that should have made Thompson a pop star but didn’t. It was stuffed with eager, hum-able melodies but was perhaps too lyrically engaging (or demanding, depending on one’s perspective) for a pop generation where examining relationships above the Brittney Spears level is often discouraged.

Bella isn’t likely to change any of that. The album’s generously melodic thrust erupts full blown on the album-opening Looking for a Girl. But the chiming lyrical hooks simply enhance a song that is only partially tongue-in-cheek in its check list of romantic requirements (“I’m looking for a girl who drinks and smokes, who takes a lot of drugs and can take a joke”).

But Bella gains some ground over its sharp predecessors. Especially apparent is Thompson’s continued maturity as a vocalist. One of the album’s highlights is its least complicated love confessional, Tell Me What You Want. There is not a verse or chorus in the tune over two lines long. But it doesn’t need anything more. Thompson uses the concise lyrics to wail like a young Roy Orbison – or more exactly, a young Roy Orbison channeled through a middle age Raul Malo. Those are still strong artistic sources to draw from. Producer David Kahne (whose has handled records for such multi generational legends as Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney and Wilco) dresses the tune with epic strings, chattering marimba-like percussive effects and duet vocals from another notable pop offspring, Jenni Muldaur (daughter of ‘70s pop-blues songstress Maria Muldaur).

Thompson ups the Orbison ante further on Take Care of Yourself, a first-rate crooner that sails briefly into that impossible, yearning falsetto that many pop singers strive (but usually fail) to convincingly hit. Thompson scores a bullseye. That alone makes Bella worthy of attention from the pop maistream. Now let’s see if the mainstream is up for the party.

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