Given Teddy Thompson's talent as a songwriter and the cool, intelligent folk-rock leanings of his first two albums, he would hardly seem like a likely candidate to record an album of covers, especially one devoted to interpretations of old-school country classics made famous by the likes of George Jones, Ernest Tubb, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard. But that's just what Thompson has done with his third album, Upfront & Down Low, and while the arrangements occasionally refer to the honky tonk roots of these songs, for the most part Thompson strives to give these tunes a fresh interpretation, and the secret theme of this album seems to be one songwriter paying homage to gifted colleagues in his field. Thompson's voice is essentially devoid of any southern twang, and his phrasing owes little clear allegiance to traditional country styles, but he clearly understands the emotional weight of the songs on this album, and his performances allows these classic tunes to be heard by fresh ears in a new context. While you can't take "She Thinks I Still Care" away from George Jones, and Ernest Tubb will always be linked to "Walking the Floor Over You," Thompson's renditions cast them in a new light, and his clear, unforced but emotionally resonant performances offer a striking reminder of how strong and timeless they really are, and the other songs fare every bit as well (and he contributes one new song, "Down Low," that shows his chops as a tunesmith are still in fine shape). Thompson has assembled a superb band for these sessions (including his father Richard Thompson on guitar, as well as Marc Ribot, Greg Leisz and David Mansfield), and Iris DeMent, Tift Merritt and Jenni Muldaur contribute excellent vocal support. But what makes Upfront & Down Low most effective is Thompson's excellent choices in material, and while this doesn't dig especially deep into the catalog of great Nashville songwriting, the 11 vintage numbers included here show how easy it is to find superb material in this context, and how striking they can be in the hands of a gifted interpreter.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming