Jim Lauderdale’s track record of late has been remarkable. A highly respected songwriter and affable performer, the quality and craft evident on every recording he’s put out has remained consistently high. Equally at home with blazing bluegrass and hard-core honky-tonk, he delivers everything with jaunty and unerring ease.
Patchwork River is an all-original collection, with every song written by Lauderdale and Robert Hunter, erstwhile lyricist for the Grateful Dead and recent Dylan collaborator. Lauderdale’s always had a way with a catchy tune, and the songs here all have strong hooks, most featuring the kid of sing-along choruses that make ‘em seem like old friends by the second listen. Collaborating with Hunter pretty much guarantees that the lyrics, too, will provide plenty to chew on; even the love songs are thoughtful and considered, and there’s not a throw-away line to be found.
Place plays a huge part here, with few tunes passing without geographical reference; whether it’s first-person ruminations or pithy character sketches, Hunter’s people and places are unmistakably American. And musically, Lauderdale cuts a broad stylistic swath through Americana, from the rock ‘n’ roll country of the title track (admittedly more a state of mind than location) to the horn-fueled easy-going Memphis soul of “Louisville Roll,” with its “girl from Knoxville town.” There’s “Alligator Alley” and “El Dorado,” the former dark and foreboding, the latter fairly bursting at the seams with longing for that “city of gold.” “Turn To Stone” turns teenage awkwardness into swampy rock ‘n’ roll, while wistful reflection prevails on the tender and melancholic “Far In The Far Away.”
It’s all delivered with easy aplomb, the band impeccable yet loose and relaxed, providing muscular but supple accompaniment throughout. Arrangements are full but resources are allocated tastefully for maximum effect; shimmery guitars, wheezy organ, and swelling horns are applied judiciously, with the net result a wonderfully catchy but carefully crafted collection that’s as musically satisfying as it is lyrically rich.