When going back and reading my take on John Hiatt’s last album Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns I almost thought I had already written my commentary on the one he’s got on tap next, because virtually everything you can use to describe Dirty Jeans could easily apply to Mystic Pinball.
Renowned producer Kevin Shirley behind the boards? Check. Backed up my Hiatt’s latest killer backup band, the Combo? Roger that. Hiatt still writing songs in the folk-blues, rock and country styles befitting his Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting Award by the Americana Music Association? Yessir.
So maybe there’s not quite the display of raw feelings that we heard on last year’s “Damn This Town,” but Hiatt’s gift for turning a phrase and making things rhyme naturally are in evidence all over this album, and by the end of each song, we’re never left wondering what the heck were we supposed to take away from it. It’s kind of nice to once in while listen to songs that aren’t so damned esoteric, for art’s sake.
Three of the first five songs rock about as hard as Hiatt does, but every time he does, it’s got depth to it. The advance single “We’re Alright Now” (Youtube below) with its sunny outlook and everybody-sing-along chorus practically begs anyone within shouting distance to sing along with it. The funky crunch of “Bite Marks” traces its lineage right back to “Paper Thin,” and “My Business” is his signature witty take on a relationship gone sour, punctuated by a Howlin’ Wolf field holler.
Hiatt has the rare talent to mix humor and gravity and does so brilliantly on “Wood Chipper,” a tale of a love triangle with lethal consequences, as told by a dead victim of it (the hilarity comes from his reciting a grocery list found on the girl mistakenly thought by authorities to be some sort of clues to the crime.)
Hiatt can still churn out the ballads, too, convincingly conveying sad resignation (“I’m not here to make you pay, baby, I just don’t know what to say;” “don’t think I’ll ever find love again but I know how to lose you”). The Nashville comes out in him on more than one occasion, and “You All The Reason I Need” is even destined to be covered by someone like Brad Paisley. On the other hand, the horn-enhanced shuffle “One of Them Damn Days” could easily find its way on many a blues musician’s set list. Toward the end of the album, you’ll find stripped down acoustic guitar-driven numbers like “No Wicked Grin” and “Blues Can’t Even Find Me,” proving that when everything else is peeled back, Hiatt’s songs stand on their own.
The formula for Mystic Pinball is much like the prior album; in some respects, it’s the same formula of the last twenty-five years. But Hiatt is not formulaic; he can’t possibly be that way and produce a bunch of enduring songs each time out. This is no rut he’s in, it’s a groove.
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Here’s a look back at our past thoughts on other John Haitt recordings. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
John Hiatt – Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (2011): Hiatt is putting his Nashville-inspired ditties on display with just the right amount of twang and ruggedness to meld the better elements of rock, country and folk into something that we all identify with the man behind this music.
John Hiatt – The Open Road (2010): The twist on this record is that all of the songs are themed on driving and travel on “the open road.” That’s hardly a big stretch for the guy who gave us road anthems like “Memphis In The Meantime” and “Drive South,” but now he’s putting the subject matter he visits often all into a single collection of new tunes on that topic.
John Hiatt – Slow Turning (1988): John Hiatt would go on to make many more records using the template he forged on these two late-eighties classics; some are good, a few of them great. But I don’t think any of them were ever as great as Slow Turning.