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Sunday, June 1, 2003

Perfectly good album

John Hiatt is one of the few great American popular songwriters working today. I didn't start to follow his career carefully until the early '90s, when I picked up his album Stolen Moments, which blew me away. Over the next few months, I worked my way backward in his discography, through Slow Turning and Bring the Family, which were also mighty impressive and have turned out to age even better than Moments. In the aggregate, this three-record output was nothing short of phenomenal. So full of life, so wise, so heartfelt. Hiatt's voice is not the easiest in the world to spend an extended time listening to, but the songs are so good, you just have to give it a chance, and when you do, it can grow on you.

Live Hiatt shows have never disappointed. The first one I caught was at the Melody Ballroom in support of Stolen Moments. In the full clutches of a big record company, Hiatt toured with Waddy Wachtell and the rest of a gorgeous band that played the heck out of that album, and some exquisite earlier stuff as well. The next show I caught was one of my oddest live music experiences ever. It was during a summer way overbooked with outdoor concerts in Portland, and a promoter group tried something called "roots" over a few nights down in Waterfront Park. Hiatt headlined for a three- or four-act bill, and there was nobody there. I mean 100 people max. He performed an excellent acoustic solo set, and those of us who were lucky enough to be there were just shaking our heads at the incongruity of it all.

Hiatt surfaced next as the opening act for Jackson Browne at the Washington Park Rose Garden. This time it was in support of Perfectly Good Guitar, a fine album but just not in the same league with Moments/Turning/Family. The place was oversold, people were jostling each other all night, it was hard to hear at times, and the crowd was mostly there for Jackson Browne to do I'm Alive and pieces of his great songbook. But once again, Hiatt and band discharged themselves admirably.

Fast forward to a summer night gig in Pioneer Courthouse Square with Wilco, Hiatt, and Los Lobos, in that order, a couple of years ago. Wilco was interesting, but the Lobos were flat, leaving it for Hiatt to steal the show. He had with him his backup band from the Slow Turning days -- the Goners, including a guy named Sonny Landreth on guitar and slide -- and they went nuts with both that album and Bring the Family. They were tight, talented, and clearly getting off on not having to carry a whole show. They killed.

Hiatt and the Goners have now gone back in the studio and come out with a disc called Beneath This Gruff Exterior. On this small-label offering, for the first time, the band gets its name in the billing with Hiatt. It's a great band to reunite in the studio, and Hiatt has brought them 12 songs that, if not his "A" material, are "A-minus" at worst.

Musically, no new ground is broken. The sounds are familiar to any Hiatt fan who's worn out his earlier albums. But that's a good thing. Give me Landreth on guitar for a batch of new John Hiatt songs any day.

Lyrically, Gruff Exterior is classic Hiatt -- at once deep, silly, cranky, wry, smart, cuddly, brutal, cute, clever -- with great tales of love, loss, nostalgia, and a bunch of other stuff that will take a dozen more listens for me to figure out. I must complain that whoever picked the song order for the CD got it all wrong -- the first two tracks may be the weakest -- but that's easily remedied in these days of the "shuffle" button. So far I'm partial to "The Nagging Dark," where Hiatt tells the listener "You can't run away from the nagging dark / You carry it everywhere in your heart / It finishes everything that you start," but then points out, "Hope is your finest work of art."

The rollicking "Circle Back" also brings on the goosebumps. Hiatt tells how he drove his daughter to college, and then "Drove back through an empty space / Thinkin' back to when she was a baby / Tryin' hard to see that face." Meanwhile the Goners bop on, with Landreth punctuating the fatherhood narrative with bright guitar lines that hearken back to Hiatt's new dad song, "Georgia Rae," made in the '80s when the now-collegiate kid was just tiny.

It's hard for me to be objective about John Hiatt, but this is an exceedingly pleasing recording. And after a listen or two, the "shuffle" button takes this good thing and somehow improves it.

Thus, in my recent CD haul from Music Millennium, I went three for three.

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