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Review: Jim Lauderdale, 'London Southern'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Jim Lauderdale, <em>London Southern.</em>
/ Courtesy of artist
Courtesy of artist
Jim Lauderdale, London Southern.

We music critics often assume the moral duty of championing artists whose nominal popularity is unjustly dwarfed by their gifts. For years now, Jim Lauderdale has been a favorite cause of those who cover country, roots and bluegrass, the subject of countless righteously deployed rhetoricals: Why isn't he a bona fide country star by now? Shouldn't he be every bit as big as the singers who've recorded his songs? Doesn't he deserve to be a household name? Even a documentary has explored the disproportionate relationship between the high quality of the 60-year-old North Carolina native's singing and songwriting and the fairly modest fame he's accrued.

Thankfully, there are also other ways to appraise Lauderdale's career. Few Nashville fixtures have let their influences, instincts and interests lead them into greater or more varied productivity, or been less hindered in their collaborations by the dividing lines between scenes and formats. He's an Americana ambassador who's also written a slew of contemporary country hits and eased in and out of bluegrass, jam band and classic country circles at will, seeming to draw satisfaction from all of it. Over the last decade and a half, he's averaged more than an album a year, skipping from niche to niche, concept to concept.

For roughly half of that time, he was building up to the release of this pet project London Southern, If the notion of an exemplar of trad country sensibilities tipping his hat to the British invasion strikes you as a little left-field, it's worth noting that Lauderdale has always been open about his admiration for The Beatles' dashing tunefulness, and in that regard, he's in good company.

Lauderdale wrote some of these songs while retracing his musical heroes' steps on a U.K. tour. Visiting the original site of the Liverpool dive where the Fab Four developed their sprightly appeal sparked the hopped-up number "This Is a Door." Other compositions are the fruit of stateside collabs with southern and blue-eyed soul specialists Dan Penn and John Oates and country pros Odie Blackmon and Kendell Marvel. Lauderdale enlisted the Brits that ordinarily play behind Nick Lowe, one of the U.K.'s most stylish and fluent speakers of country music idioms, as well as Lowe's studio allies Neil Brockbank and Bobby Irwin to render the dozen songs with rakish finesse.

As Jack Hamilton noted in Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, the era of British pop that spoke to Lauderdale evolved out of a complex set of transatlantic exchanges; U.K musicians embraced what they heard as authentic American folk, blues and jazz, launched youthful trends like skiffle by tweaking those traditions and, even after they began profoundly shaping U.S. pop trends, kept listening for new ideas to try and material to cover from over there. (Motown was a major source for The Beatles, not just the other way around, as Hamilton notes.) Lauderdale places his album against that backdrop. In the press kit, he's quoted as saying, "[I]t was that thing of how much British musicians loved American music, and how they interpreted our roots, then we interpreted them. They love a lot of the same things I do, only from a very different perspective... [The flow of ideas for this album] was very American to British to America to Britain to America to, well, here."

Not that Lauderdale simply leans on nostalgia. There's a giddy immediacy to his summoning of throwback sounds in the springy, early Beatles-style romp "No Right Way To Be Wrong." He sounds positively impish, dragging his drawl down the descending hook. The suave soul shuffling of "We've Only Got So Much Time Here" and "You Came To Get Me" brings late '60s and early '70s Van Morrison to mind without feeling too on-the nose. And Lauderdale's vocal performances — slouching, wounded yet wry, against the frisky, horn-peppered R&B of "I Can't Do Without You"; skulking and sensual during the ballad "Different Kind of Groove This Time"; heaving with need during the orchestrated, supper club jazz number "I Love You More" — showcase country-soul chops that tend to get overlooked.

It's no wonder that Lauderdale would've been impacted by popular, imported sounds. Hearing them as a kid fed his faith in the power of American music to resonate around the world, and helped prepare him to carve out space for a career that's been as imaginative as it has rooted.

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