Monday, August 8, 2005

Ol School: All the Lilacs in Ohio

In the pantheon of my favorite singer/songwriters John Hiatt falls somewhere near the top of the second tier. He isn't as good as Bob or Lucinda but he's in the same league as Neil Young or Elvis Costello (who he's often been compared to). I've stopped going to see his live shows because every one I've gone to has been pretty much been the same thing. Not that that's a bad thing seeing he's got quite the impressive catalog of songs and he's a fun performer. But I really don't need to hear another live version of "Thing Called Love" (which he wrote but most people associate with Bonnie Raitt).

His last few CDs have really been hit or miss. Crossing Muddy Waters was brilliant, my all time favorite Hiatt CD, while his last release, Beneath This Gruff Exterior was uninspired to say the least. 2001's The Tiki Bar is Open still gets played more than any of my other Hiatt CDs.
So I didn't rush out and buy his latest effort, Master of Disaster when it first came out because quite frankly there were other discs out there that I wanted to hear a little more (The Eels and The Wallflowers to name two).

When I finally got around to listening to Master of Disaster I was pleasantly surprised. This is Hiatt at the top of his game and as they say there's not a bad song in the entire bunch. I put it on late one evening and as I lay in bed trying to catch some much needed but always elusive sleep, my ears perked up and by the end of the last song I was again high on Hiatt.

The title song (and opener) is a follow up anthem to "Perfectly Good Guitar" and like many of his best songs one has to wonder if the bastard Hiatt is singing about may be the songwriter himself. "Thunderbird" is the most Springsteenian song Hiatt has ever written right on down to the automobile motif and somewhat sinister and sinewy sounding melody. "Howlin Down the Cumberland" and "Cold River" are simple country blues and show a singer who alternates between pain and great joy. I guess one can't quite ever truly appreciate the beauty of this world if one doesn't at times wallow in its ugliness.

My favorite song on the CD, and perhaps my favorite John Hiatt song of all time is the old time jazz "Wintertime Blues" that after my first listen made me get out of bed and hit the repeat button a couple of times because it's so damn funny, and it captures the inertia of wintertime living so accurately I got a shiver even lying in the hot July air. It's the kind of song that seems to flow naturally from Hiatt and it's the type of song that sounds like it's been around forever at the same time one has to marvel at its pure originality.

"Three hours of daylight and all of them gray/The suicide prevention group has all run away/I'm running out of groceries/I ain't got no rubber shoes/Bring the bacon baby/I got the wintertime blues..."

When he repeats over and over that there hasn't been any spring, there's never been any spring, the mocking sincerity in his voice reveals a man who is finding great humor in his own misery. He's as "stiff as Al Gore" because things are cold as snot. And to top it off he admits all he wants is "gravy on everything." And for those of us who somehow put up with Minnesota winters every year, we know exactly what Hiatt is moaning about.

All the songs are sung with great confidence for great reason: this is a terrific songwriter who knows he has come up with a bunch of good songs and has the band to deliver on the goods. With Master of Disaster Hiatt once again demonstrates why he is one of the few artists whose work is consistently worth paying attention to even if he seemingly will forever stay on the cusp of popularity. His music can't be pigeonholed even if it's always easy to spot a John Hiatt song from a million miles away.

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