On first glance, Jim Lauderdale's new disc Headed for the Hills seems like a standard addition to the bluegrass and country catalog. Very quickly though, the astute listener will realize the lyrics add aren't quite the standard fare of the genre. A glance at the liner notes and it hits you: "All songs by Robert Hunter and Jim Lauderdale." Dig a little deeper and even more familiar names are there: amongst others, Bryan Sutton on guitar, Tim O'Brien on mandolin, and Gillian Welch on harmony.
The three major components of this album, as Lauderdale sings in the album-opening "High Timberline," are "stepping like dancers in three-quarter time." First up are Hunter's lyrics, which are the real strength of the album. "High Timberline" could fit right in with Hunter's classic material and one wonders what Garcia might have done with such poetry. On other tracks, like "Crazy Peg and Darby Doyle" in particular, Hunter seems to spoof some of bluegrass' clichés from the inside, where the tongue is so subtly in cheek you barely notice anything out of the ordinary on first listen. By track 11, "I'll Sing Again," Lauderdale and Hunter seem to all but acknowledge this understated goof they're on.
The second piece to the three-step waltz is Lauderdale himself. Jim's voice is a nice tender growl suited perfectly to the Appalachian themes. He sings a convoluted love song over the backdrop of the Civil War with perfection, and on "Tales from the Sad Hotel" he comes off as a mountain-baked Van Morrison. There are some instances where the pairing of Hunter's prose and Lauderdale's music seems to completely fall flat, either one dumbing itself too far down or the other not rising to meet the challenge. I also have to admit that some songs, "Trashcan Tomcat" for one, only annoyed me (especially after getting stuck in my head for days on end--isn't that always the way?), but the album as a whole works.
The final piece helps hold the other two together: the sound of the music itself. The album just sounds great, with a lush, acoustic glow warming each track. After a few listens and the mental note of "great mandolin," it shouldn't surprise me to go back to the text and find that Tim O'Brien, one of the masters of the instrument, is doing the playing. He's a standout on the tracks he contributes to and deserves mention. In the end, it's great to know that Robert Hunter is still churning out worthwhile words and that he's finding the right partners to get them heard.
JamBase | New York
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