Consummate Classic Country.
Jim Lauderdale has achieved a particular type of musical success: a long career, a significant and critically lauded body of work, a long list of ‘name’ collaborators, songs being covered by other artists – but no significant breakthrough. It is perhaps with a knowing awareness of this history that Lauderdale – now routinely referred to as a ‘veteran’ ‘legend’ and ‘icon’ in country music – releases an album titled ‘Game Changer’. Will this be one that delivers on all the years of promise?
To his credit, Lauderdale’s own stated ambition for the album is musical: “I have done my job on this record if people who love classic country feel like they can put it on, or have it in their collection, and it would fit right in”. Although this reviewer is not the biggest fan of Nashville classic country, there is an undeniable quality to this record in all aspects – the songs, the arrangements, the performances and the recording. Whether or not the album turns out to be a ‘game changer’ career-wise, it is a perfect demonstration of Lauderdale’s talent.
A key indication of that talent is Lauderdale’s ability to write within the ‘classic country’ genre yet find melodies and lyrical ideas that keep things fresh enough; to produce something that sounds sufficiently familiar whilst having a distinctive voice. A good example of this balance is found on ‘Wishbone’. The melody traces the familiar paths of a country ballad, but the lyrical idea (“I’ve got a wishbone, where my backbone ought to be”) and Lauderdale’s convincing delivery keeps you listening. It’s a clever and poignant reflection on being a dreamer. Similarly, the swing shuffle of ‘Let’s Make Some Memories’ couldn’t be more ‘classic’ in its sound and structure, but it has a catchy tune and some finely crafted lines (“let’s make some memories, the good ones are all gone“). It’s not an insult to suggest that this track surely belongs on a Hollywood film soundtrack.
There are other sounds and styles. The album opens with high energy and positivity on ‘That Kind of Life’, a twin-guitar riff and the drum pattern having echoes of The Allman Brothers’ ‘Jessica’ (otherwise known as the Top Gear theme). This 70s’ country rock sound is revisited on the funky ‘You’re Hoggin’ My Mind’, the band sounding like they could be backing Las Vegas-era Elvis. The title track ‘Game Changer’ is something different, not a common country chord sequence – but possibly the most memorable melody on the album. Perhaps another hallmark of quality songwriting is that a song could be given a completely different treatment – stripped of the pedal steel and twang – but still convince. ‘Game Changer‘ is one of those songs.
Jim Lauderdale is clearly committed to the craft of songwriting – “it’s a constant to challenge to try to keep making better and better records, write better and better songs. I still feel like I’m a developing artist”. It’s hard to imagine an album of its style much more accomplished than this one, but in any craft it is the small details, the precision – and making something difficult look easy – that are the hallmarks of mastery. There’s always another song or two to write and no doubt there will be more to come from this seasoned troubadour.
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