Lisa Simpson’s jazz mentor Bleeding Gums Murphy said “the blues isn’t about feeling better. It’s about making other people feel worse and making a few bucks while you’re at it.” Probably not a fair description of the blues, even if your only considerations are the art form’s more popular artists like B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan, since most people who enjoy the blues emerge emotionally nourished from the experience. The deceased fictional sax player had instead accidentally recapitulated the “singer/songwriter” genre.
Come to Where I’m From is a dry, sparse collection built on Joseph Arthur’s thin and unvarying voice. Dark and closeted, disturbing in calculated doses, Arthur’s stated intention was to create the impression that his music could “go out of control at any minute.” It never does, in part because the instrumentation is so muted and disconnected (a disappointment given T Bone Burnett’s involvement). While the effect of layering Arthur’s vocals is interesting, only two tracks (“Ashes Everywhere” and “Chemical”) explore this opportunity. “Eyes on My Back” and “In the Sun” are relatively unpredictable, but the most dimensional effort on Come to Where I’m From is “Invisible Hands,” which makes an attempt to evoke a smoky, Leonard Cohen atmosphere. To say the rest of the collection goes downhill from there is almost to be literal. “The Real You” and “Creation or a Stain” take the room down. The cumulative effect of these last few tracks is so bleak it becomes laughable, almost to the calibre of performance art. (Not perhaps unexpected since earlier songs like “Cockroach” and “History” have the ambiance of coffee house readings.) The late Michael O’Donoghue was speaking about the perverse psychology of entertainers like Liza Minelli when he encapsulated their ideology into seven words: “The person in the most pain wins.” His summation is all too appropriate for Joseph Arthur.
Teddy Thompson is not as easily dismissed. His eponymous debut unapologetically blends country and folk influences and never veers off into bathos the way Come to Where I’m From does. Unfortunately, Teddy Thompson isn’t particularly memorable after it closes with an unlisted, shrill rendition of the early Everly Brothers track “I Wonder If I Care As Much.”
The closest he comes to evoking his father’s style is a sentiment in “Missing Children” (“I miss you like a missing child”). It’s probably a horribly inappropriate metaphor but the sentiment comes across as heartfelt rather than contrived. For its flaws, Teddy Thompson doesn’t pander or resort to musical sob stories. There is a subtle poignancy in songs like “So Easy” and “Brink of Love” which Thompson expresses without any indication of overkill. This is important if only because of the maudlin tendencies of singer/songwriter antecedents of the 1970s who left an indelible stain on the genre.
Thompson’s vocals at times resemble James Taylor more than Richard or Linda Thompson, particularly on “Brink of Love” and “Love Her For That.” “Thanks a Lot” closely approximates the wry style of Michael Penn and John Wesley Harding, which is an encouraging indication for Thompson’s future efforts. The album isn’t compelling, but Teddy Thompson would make a smooth transition for those whose tastes are firmly set into contemporary country or alternative.
©2001 Rodney E Griffith. All rights reserved.