Upfront and Down Low
Douglas Heselgrave's #4 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2007, Volume 14, #9
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed September 5, 2007, 05:00 AM CDT
Upon first listening to Upfront and Down Low, Teddy Thompsonís follow-up to his stirring sophomore endeavor Separate Ways, one can be forgiven for wondering if he has lost the plot and turned his back on the confessional tales of young love and betrayal that characterized his opening effort. At the outset, the odes to lost innocence and disappointment of Separate Ways seem to occupy a different universe from those on his new album of classic country covers. Thompson has moved away from the paradigm inhabited by many of his peers, such as Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright, as well as the grandiose soundscapes that defined his previous disc. Still, a recording of aching country chestnuts that were made famous by George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Dolly Parton sounds like career suicide ó or it would, if Thompson werenít so damn talented. Supported by beautiful arrangements and sterling musicianship, Separate Ways was a collection of Thompsonís own angst-ridden compositions, but there was a certain sense of maturity that was missing from the set. It was impossible not to come away from it with the feeling that he was in danger of getting trapped in a corner, one from which he needed to escape in order to grow as an artist.
From the most unlikely of sources, a solution to this dilemma came. In the songs that Thompson chose to record for Upfront and Down Low, there is a shared exploration of love and loss that characterized the aesthetics of Separate Ways. In his new suite of hard-bitten tales of suffering and pain, however, he finds the stoicism and resolve that were absent from his sophomore set. The shared melodrama of both collections finds a resolution and the strength to carry on in the painful, moral tales that are eviscerated on Upfront and Down Low.
In his approach and selection of songs, Teddy Thompson is a fearless artist. Upfront and Down Low is not a collection of country-light crossover tunes. This also isnít classic country with a full helping of irony Š la early k.d. Lang or the Flying Burrito Brothers. Thompson never flinches or lets his gaze drop away from the momentum of the material he has taken on. He jumps right into the heavy, tearful darkness that each of these compositions inhabits, and he plumbs the depths of the genuine emotion that they try to communicate.
In emotional terms, Thompson often channels Hank Williams with a sense of power and confidence as well as a lack of affectation that one would not expect from such a young singer. His utter sincerity and willingness to follow the heart of these tunes makes Upfront and Down Low a collection without a recent parallel. As revelatory as Johnny Cashís American Recordings, Thompsonís album presents country music that is treated with reverence and respect. He delivers the material as it should be heard. How a young, English singer pulled this off is a mystery, but suffice it to say that his version of Walking the Floor over You rips into the stale-beer stench of country musicís heart of darkness like few singers have ever been able to muster. It is no exaggeration to say that a better vocal track has yet to be laid down anywhere so far in 2007. Over the course of the discís 13 tracks, the absolute control and commitment in Thompsonís voice sends shivers down his listenersí spines as he mines the emotion out of classics such as The Worst Is Yet to Come and My Blue Tears.
The realization of Upfront and Down Low was aided by many of the best musicians in the business. In addition to receiving a helping hand from his contemporaries ó Rufus Wainwright, Tift Merritt, and Jason Crosby ó there are vocal and musical contributions from the truly gifted Iris DeMent, Tom Waits' guitarist Marc Ribot, and Bill Frisellís collaborator Greg Leisz. Richard Thompson, Teddyís dad, also lays down some tastefully off-kilter, honky-tonk leads on one track [You Finally Said Something Good (When You Said Goodbye)], thus showing the embarrassment of riches and talent that have been passed from father to son. Down Low may be the only original composition on the collection, but it demonstrates that Thompson can get down and dirty in the hurting department with the best of them.
Reminiscent of John Prine and Mac Wisemanís Standard Songs for Average People but containing a darker focus and much more muscular and rich vocalization, Upfront and Down Low is the best country album to be issued so far this year. Often sounding like Lyle Lovett in his heyday, Thompson sings each of these vintage classics without fear or affectation. These lovingly crafted songs hopefully will show younger listeners just how short a musical journey it really is between Hank Williams and Jeff Buckley while also stressing the tremendous universality of the North American song form, regardless of musical genre. Like the great British blues artists of the 1960s, Teddy Thompson has taken an American musical form, treated it with reverence, and reflected it back onto its country of origin so that it can be heard and appreciated in new ways. Upfront and Down Low represents a huge artistic leap for a young singer who just now is entering his prime. It is a triumph and an early career highlight that surely will gain respect and increase in reputation as the years pass. Ĺ
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box