Album Review: Thompson “Family”

Thompson Family

3.3/5

Even from the perspective of world-renowned British folksters, “Family” is an intimate and honest portrait of what it means to belong to a familial unit: through function and dysfunction, happiness and strife; all coming from different perspectives and going in different directions, but bound by blood and by love. Teddy Thompson, the eldest son of the famed folk rock family, produced the album and helped arrange it by getting his blood relations and in-laws, consisting of a whole platoon of British folk singers (including but not limited to: Richard, Linda, Teddy, Jack, Kami and newcomer grandson Zak Hobbs) to write songs for an album about their own family. In theory, this sounds like a recipe for potential disaster, like a reality TV show in the form of an album, but the result is honest and graceful in its implicit imperfection. Family is not always a concept associated with happiness or grace, and the Thompson family seems to have always had its share of despair and discord. In Teddy’s own words on the “Family” website, “I didn’t realize how much I was trying to get my family back together, I was six when my parents divorced, and my world was torn apart. It has affected everything in my life since. How could it not?”

In Teddy’s title track “Family”, a lullaby-like folk waltz, Teddy talks about his singing relatives, their strengths and weaknesses, and their similarities, all delivered with a sheepish self-deprecation about his own role in the family. As a “middle child, a boy with red hair and no smile” he finds himself identifying most with the woman who practically raised him, his grandmother. While she devoted herself to taking care of him and his sisters, he says “she never dealt with her pain//And I’ve done exactly the same//Pushing it down or trying to drown it away.” In the end, it’s the cyclical refrain of “It’s Family” that ties the song together. This phrase and its repetition simultaneously mirror the familial behaviors and tendencies and mistakes that repeat themselves across generations, while also recognizing that it’s those same repetitions that give us a sense of belonging and comfort. It’s a nice forward to an album that as a whole celebrates the dysfunctional, but typical family. But this is not an “album” by a “band.” It’s not even a concept album. It’s a collection of songs some six or more songwriters have written about each other. The stylings and efforts of each song wildly differ, and in the end the “album” is inconsistent in terms of song quality and style.

While both of Teddy’s songs on the album are strong and charming in their accessible intimacy, Kami’s “Careful”, Richard’s “One Life at a Time” and Linda’s “Perhaps We Can Sleep” all deliver predictable lyrics, and vague convoluted messages. In lines like “Be careful you don’t fall in love// with someone who might break your heart// you might give the game away// you never win but you love to play” the self-important sense that the songwriter’s wisdom needs to be heard, and the song is a lesson, albeit a trite and predictable one. Teddy seems to treat his songs more as praise for his relatives and laments his own lack of success/marriage/children/etc. It feels more genuine and endearing to admit one’s flaws, rather than point towards the flaws of one’s siblings using such elementary rhymes and messages. Fortunately, other family members serve as strong backing musicians, tightening the arrangements. Teddy’s production skill also helps to tie the musical threads of these disjointed tracks together. While Kami’s bland “Careful” has the pop-folk ring of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie (not in a good way), her duet with husband James Walbourne “I Long for Lonely” rings true with the tone of an Emmylou Harris folk ballad. The two sing well together, and their song about the trials and tribulations of daily life and the desire to get away from the drudgery makes for a nice end cap to the album.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the album comes in 17-year-old grandson Zak Hobbs’ “Root So Bitter”. His rough cut, rhythmic folk-blues fingerpicking evokes a bootleg series Bob Dylan, and his voice that of a young John Lennon. It’s as though you can hear this young man’s enthusiasm and hesitance in the production of the song. He is singing and discovering his own sense of confidence and creative validity through this process. It’s admirable that this kid would even attempt such a feat in the shadow of his more accomplished relatives, but in this instance, his work shines in comparison. Teddy Thompson is no fool to have included his young nephew on this record. This is Hobb’s first attempt at songwriting and recording, but obviously that’s what gives the song such value. While Linda, Kami, and Richard write two songs each for the album, they all seem to have taken that task as a homework assignment – a familial obligation. Hobb’s youthful exuberance and inexperience serve him well. His song soars above most of the other material on this record, and definitely sets the bar high in terms of his potential.

In the end, if you’ve never listened to any of the Thompsons (I hadn’t when I picked it up), there’s something to be gleaned from this record to be sure. Each member of this family has their own unique songwriting style and voice to support it. The album is in no way perfect, being somewhat of a roller coaster ride of styles and voices. But one would hope Teddy, the master of this dysfunctional record, would have known that going in. This is not a Carter Family record, hiding the flaws, the arguments, the substance abuse, and the politics behind a veneer of neat and cropped country tunes. This is the Thompson family, divided but talented, and unafraid to proclaim those differences with the honesty of a true family, embracing each member for their talents and flaws alike.

 

 

— Jeb Brinkley

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