REVIEW: Thompson Square – ‘Masterpiece’

Back in 2011 when husband and wife duo Keifer and Shawna Thompson released their debut album, Country music wasn’t the big deal here in the UK that it is now, so some of you may be forgiven for thinking that new (third) album, ‘Masterpiece’ is actually their debut.

In some respects, though, you would be right in that the aforementioned album is Thompson Square’s ‘independent’ debut. After two albums with Stoney Creek records the duo have decided to plough their own furrow through the field of Country music. With number one songs in ‘Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not’ and ‘If I Didn’t Have You’ under their belts along with Vocal Duo of the Year awards in both 2012 and 2013 from the ACM, Thompson Square are no ‘start-up’ outfit. They are experienced musicians with a passion for their chosen profession. Their brand of soulful, Country-Pop-Rock comes from the heart and their voices intertwine beautifully together, meaning that whether they are singing something meaningful, like first album weepy, ‘Glass’ or something fun, like debut single, ‘Let’s Fight’ there is a connection and an authenticity to their music that is often lacking from the usual stuff churned out by the labels on Music Row.

I first heard their music on holiday in California in 2011 and was drawn in immediately by their personal lyrics and strong harmonies, I purchased their self-titled debut album from a Barnes and Noble in Santa Monica: yes, people would actually go out and buy a physical product in those days! Second album, ‘Just Feels Good’ arrived two years later and gave us the cheeky, ‘Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About’ and the heartfelt ‘If I Didn’t Have You’. ACM awards followed although the duo was beaten in the CMA Vocal Duo of the Year category three years running by Florida Georgia Line and then Keifer and Shawna welcomed the birth of their first child, Rigney, in January 2016 but things have been musically quiet since then. Two singles, ‘Trans Am’ and ‘You Make it Look So Good’ came and went in and so it was no surprise to learn they had left Stoney Creek and decided to ‘go it alone’ with third album, ‘Masterpiece’.

One thing that has to be recognised upfront is that ‘Masterpiece’ does NOT sound like an independently produced album. It’s a lush, musically fecund affair with all the bells and whistles of a major label release. Keifer & Shawna’s vocals are handled with utmost care and sonically, this album sounds as rich and as complex as their debut, if not more so.

For me, Thompson Square have always been at their best when writing about themselves. Yes, we know they use literary embellishments but there is an honesty and a truth in the songs that seem most personal to them and ‘Masterpiece’ is chock full of examples. The title track itself seems to be the song the album is built around. The duo have a tried and tested formula of starting off a song quietly, with sparse use of instrumentation and then letting all hell break lose in the chorus. ‘Masterpiece’ highlights this convention perfectly. It’s another Thompson Square love story but it’s anthemic chorus is one of the best they’ve ever produced and the clever lyrics, ‘Da Vinci’s got his Mona Lisa, Beethoven’s got his symphonies…………………..but you’re my masterpiece,’ tug at the heartstrings in the way that only these guys know how to do.

Other songs follow suit. ‘A Love Like This’ is a more up-tempo, upbeat biographical look at their relationship that even adds their son, Rigney, into the mix by the second verse. An infectious chorus and a look at how their relationship was based on, ‘a long shot kiss, a last call risk,’ leaves ‘A Love Like This’ feeling like an extension of tracks like ‘Let’s Fight’.

‘Stupid Girls, Stupid Boys’, similarly, finds Keifer and Shawna thanking their respective ex’s for being dumb enough to let each other slip through their fingers! Shawna helms the first verse, Keifer the second as they take it in turns to be thankful that none of their previous relationships worked out! Another infectiously strong chorus to add to their repertoire as well. Following on from ‘Stupid Girls, Stupid Boys’ comes ‘Let’s Do Something Stupid’, a blusey song driven by a riff that Keith Urban would die to have written. The song takes us back to the start of the couple’s relationship, “It went back to the time when Shawna and I first started dating,” Keifer explains. “I was actually going out with someone else when I met her, but I was running away from that. I knew instantaneously that this is what I’d been running to, and instead of playing it safe, we jumped in.” ‘…….Something Stupid’ gives us those late night / hotel bar vibes in a song largely driven by Keifer but it is on ‘I Know This Guy’ that the duo might well have radio gold.

A number of Thompson Square’s earlier songs cracked the Top 20 & Top 10 and as stated earlier, they have had two Country number 1’s. “I Know This Guy’ could well be their next one if timing and distribution can be cracked. It is a brooding, Country/Pop song of the highest quality, think Lady Antebellum, hell, think Thompson Square!!! It’s a call-and-response song, with both singers taking it in turns to reveal what it is about each other they love and it works brilliantly. ‘I Know This Guy’ was made for the airwaves and it will be a musical crime of the highest order if their independent stature means they struggle to get this song the wider attention it deserves.

Not everything on ‘Masterpiece’ shines a light on the singers themselves. There are a couple of summery, beach-reggae songs that were meant for dancing & drinking along to. ‘Millionaires’ sees the duo in Jake Owen territory. It’s a cool, laid back beach song about being cash-poor but love-rich whilst ‘Good Day’ takes the reggae vibes even further, walking that strange hinterland where Country music meets the Islands with references to ‘coconut rum’ and ‘steel drums’. Keifer sings the verses on this one and Shawna takes the chorus as they shake up proceedings a little in case we were getting a little bogged down with their biographical love-fest!

Album closer, ‘Breakers’ could be another huge hit for the duo, alongside the title track and “I Know This Guy’. It’s a huge piano ballad, the most dramatic song Thompson Square have recorded since ‘Glass’ on their debut album. There’s a beauty in the song’s simplicity that is hard to capture but Shawna’s heartfelt vocal delivery and the serious nature of the lyrics are a triumph. It puts me in mind of ‘Fearless’ era Taylor Swift as Shawna sings, ‘Some people are fixers, some people are breakers,’ on a song designed to be hollered out in the shower or sang whilst standing up against a window as the rain falls heavily on the other side! What a way to finish the album and what an amazing song to be able to sing live.

By calling their album ‘Masterpiece’ Thompson Square have opened themselves up to all sorts of possible sniping from cynical journalists but it is the crowning achievement of their career so far. Their other two albums had big, high quality songs on but didn’t flow from beginning to end like this one does. There isn’t a weak moment or filler track on the album and for anyone interested in the pop-rock side of Country music you’ll struggle to find a more cohesive and emotional album released this year. Maybe ‘Masterpiece’ and Sugarland’s ‘Bigger’ are the two best Country-Pop albums around for people looking for high-quality, well-crafted music right now. Welcome back Keifer and Shawna – don’t forget to come say hi to us on this side of the Atlantic – Country music has come a long way in the UK since 2013 and we’d love to show you what a welcoming audience we are now.

James Daykin
@rockjames