CD Review of Up Front and Down Low by Teddy Thompson

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Up Front and Down Low
starstarstarno starno star Label: Verve
Released: 2007
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Rock and roll is getting old, man, and Teddy Thompson is living proof.

Thompson is the son of Richard and Linda Thompson – critical darlings, and commercial nonentities of the rock community for several decades running. One of Teddy's friends, singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright – who makes a cameo appearance here – is the son of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, no strangers themselves to the praise of critics (and the indifference of the buying public). Oh, and Rufus' sister Martha? She makes records, too.

What all this means, in a roundabout way, is that the children of the artists who comprised rock's second wave are just about all grown up, and they’re making records, and someday it might fall to you to explain to your kids that Harper Simon and James Garfunkel's dads were once in a group together. And if this thought is too depressing to contemplate, you might as well stop reading now, because if there's a member of this wave of rock progeny whose talent seems large enough to render the accomplishments of his parents a quaint and distant memory, it's Teddy Thompson. Sure, Rufus Wainwright is the one who gets all the press now, but he's too into opera and Judy Garland to ever sell a million records.

Which brings us to Up Front and Down Low, actually. It follows closely on the heels of 2006's sporadically brilliant Separate Ways, but listeners curious to hear Thompson continuing the development of his songwriting skills will find their hopes quickly dashed by this set; it's a collection of one Thompson original and eleven covers of old country songs by the likes of Ernest Tubb and Dolly Parton.

The album's got a fine songwriting pedigree, obviously – it's hard to go wrong with songs like “Walking the Floor Over You,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” and “I'm Left, You're Right, She's Gone” – and the performers are all top-notch, including David Mansfield, Greg Leisz, Iris DeMent, and Teddy's dad Richard. And it's impossible to deny how smoothly Thompson's voice coats these country chestnuts, or how spot-on the arrangements are, right down to the strings.

But it's also impossible not to ask why. As skillfully as Thompson and crew perform these songs, they don't really add anything new to them, despite not being particularly slavish (or even particularly “country”) in their interpretations. Some of these tracks never needed to be covered again ten years ago, which would make this album baffling even if Thompson hadn't already shown signs of being a talented songwriter in his own right. It's almost a novelty record, especially since it's hard to imagine who's going to want to buy it – a sizable portion of the audience for this music is either dead, too old to care who Teddy Thompson is, or completely disinterested in hearing new versions of the songs. And Thompson's budding audience is liable to regard this as exactly what it is – charming but inessential, and a curious step sideways from an artist who's already shown he can leap with the best of them.

~Jeff Giles