Jim Lauderdale

Planet of Love

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Jim Lauderdale's Planet of Love is one of the most auspicious debuts a singer/songwriter could release. While Lauderdale had been on the scene for quite a while hanging on the West Coast -- where his actual first album was recorded by Columbia and never released -- he spent most of his time (and still does) writing songs for other acts. Planet of Love is one of the first records of the new country. It has modern adult contemporary sensibilities built into its production by the once and future husbands of Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, and John Leventhal, solid country singing from Lauderdale -- who was raised in North Carolina -- and country songs that are so mercurial they seem to defy the genre. In many ways, Planet of Love is the '90s version (post-cocaine) of outlaw country. It may not fit any one place stylistically, but Crowell and Leventhal had long been pushing at country radio's boundaries, and Planet of Love is truly the first Americana and adult alternative record to land. Reprise had no idea how to market it, and though it sold acceptably and was reviewed very favorably, it was a blip on the screen. That doesn't mean it's not a classic. Lauderdale's songwriting, especially when paired with Leventhal, is flawless: there's enough rock, enough country, enough striking pop hooks, and killer bridges to make any music fan swoon. (It also doesn't hurt that Lauderdale is an amazing vocalist who has sung with the cream of country's crop.) The hard rural edge in Lauderdale's voice is inescapable, but it was in Elvis' too. The ten songs here are interchangeable in terms of excellence but the slick, rockabilly-tinged "Heaven's Flame," and "Maybe" with its Traveling Wilburys' shuffle, are mind blowers to open a record with. Likewise, the honky tonkin' "I Wasn't Fooling Around" has all the marks of being inspired by Faron Young, though it's thoroughly postmodern; but in Lauderdale's voice it could be sung by either George Jones or Bono! The track "Bless Her Heart" proves that he can sing a ballad as well. This is heartbreaking without sentimentality. The emotion in it is one of honesty, confessional shame and spine-breaking regret. (The chorus of backing vocalists that includes Shawn Colvin is also noteworthy.) Emmylou Harris made her first, though certainly not last appearance on a Lauderdale record doing a stunning (what else?) harmony vocal on "The King of Broken Hearts," echoing both Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons. The last two cuts are the bluesy rocker "What You Don't Know" with a Howlin' Wolf moan at the end of each line in the refrain, and the Everly Brothers-inspired "My Last Request," with a chilling harmony vocal by Crowell. It's a masterpiece top to bottom and broke open the floodgates for the Americana format in that decade, while kicking off an eclectic but consistently interesting recording career.

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