Jim Lauderdale is a prolific artist with a penchant for exploring musical styles. Listeners never know which direction he will go from album to album, with the sole consistencies his ability to craft a good song and his identifiable voice. He doesn't disappoint on this double album divided by the geographical and musical differences between Memphis and Nashville.
Volume 1 was recorded in Memphis, and the music is appropriately heavily influenced by soul and R&B. Both albums feature the superb duo Luther and Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars as the main backup, but their skills are more fully realized on the Memphis sessions.
Like many of the best songwriters (Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle), Lauderdale's voice has often been a weak spot on his albums. The Memphis tracks stretch his vocals to the max, and it is an interesting development. The songs are well crafted as is expected, but the soaring soulful moments and the crying blues of "Worth the Wait" introduce a hidden side of Lauderdale, and the effect is resoundingly positive. While he doesn't pull off Memphis soul quite as well as recent roots artists (Lucero, Justin Townes Earle), Lauderdale does the legacy of the area proud.
However, the Nashville sessions are a less cohesive effort. While the Memphis songs clearly draw from the blues, soul and R&B history of the city and area, the second disc curiously avoids an exploration of traditional country music. Instead, we have country rock music like "All at Once," reminiscent of the '70s output from The Band, and the swamp rock vibe of "Black Widow Spider," which adds some energy with a tribal beat propelling the music forward. On "Why Does God Let That Happen?," a gospel chorus adds levity to the lyrics, but throwaway tracks like the corny "Tarzan Houdini" seem uninspired. There is a noticeable lack of common elements threaded through these songs, which seem to be going off in random directions. As single tracks, they are great, but it seems more like a collection of B-sides than a formal album.
As a standalone album, the Nashville songs are a decent collection. However, when paired up with the wonderful Memphis tracks, the second half appears lacking. The musicians take center stage, as they deftly weave their way through the blues, soul and R&B from track to track, paying homage to the colorful history of the area, from Sun to Stax.
While the first session is tied to the city of Memphis, the second seems to exist in spite of recording location, intentionally avoiding acknowledging the roots of country music. Of course, with his vibrant personality, it would seem odd to hear Lauderdale playing countrypolitan songs. With 26 songs for the price of an average album of 10 tracks, a few missteps are easily forgivable. As a whole, these are interesting songs played by a great songwriter with excellent backing musicians.