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John Hiatt and The Goners: Beneath This Gruff Exterior

Genre: Adult rock/Americana
Label: New West

By Steve Morley

(UMCom) -- Hiatt’s career was barely above ground and losing steam when, in 1987, he cut an album with a hand-picked band featuring acclaimed musicians Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. Titled Bring The Family, it rescued Hiatt from what may have been his final dive, launching not just a successful solo career but also establishing him as a songwriter whose work would soon be in high demand. At the time, Hiatt’s personal life had been in comparable condition. In twelve-step recovery to beat his substance abuse problems, Hiatt had begun a gradual ascent into sobriety, only to watch as his professional fortunes headed similarly skyward. This upswing would feature prominently the following year in the song "Slow Turning," which spawned an album of the same name. That record marked Hiatt’s first to feature Louisiana-based guitarist Sonny Landreth and his band, The Goners. A gifted musician of unique style and technique, he would initially fill the role previously held by Ry Cooder, which meant standing in sizeable sneakers, indeed. Hiatt’s latest release is a vindication of sorts for Landreth, reuniting Hiatt with the highly proficient slide guitar player. On Beneath This Gruff Exterior, the guitarist - now a respected recording artist - is hardly playing second fiddle. The songs are pure Hiatt, but Landreth's distinctive sound is integral to the record's raw-boned clatter. He and his bandmates propel the record like a runaway locomotive, making controlled chaos into a fine art that superbly complements Hiatt’s quirky brand of roots-rock.

Hiatt’s success as a songwriter has granted him the financial freedom to pursue his own peculiar muse on his solo records, which he does with equal parts abandon and craftsmanship throughout the disc. The contents range from offbeat musings to poignant mid-life reflections to finely rendered miniatures of fringe-dwelling down-and-outers. Hard luck stories like "Missing Pieces" sit alongside songs that peer into assorted nooks of Hiatt’s imperfect but unquestionably more attractive life, placing his less successful characters in high relief. These juxtapositions create an unspoken message much like "there but for the grace of God go I," illuminating the dim, unsettling awareness that any one of us could make a life-altering misstep along the way.

No stranger to failure or dysfunction, Hiatt drifts in and out of his more fictional works like an omniscient narrator able to look upon his creations with the empathy and good humor through which he’s evidently learned to view his own life. In "The Nagging Dark," he offers the promise of escape from a life of twilight as only a true survivor can: "Through the blackest night/ you still hold on tight/ Hope is your finest work of art." "Almost Fed Up With The Blues" takes a darkly comic look at the dubious comforts of depression, while "The Most Unoriginal Sin" borrows Garden of Eden imagery and explores the downward spiral of infidelity and of drowning one's sorrows. Though Hiatt doesn't suggest that he condones such choices, he avoids passing judgment on the unfortunates that populate his lyrics, and is equally careful to steer clear of pity, offering his listeners an unusually neutral look at the shadowy side of life.

The songwriter offers a glimpse into his obtuse, observational writing style on "Uncommon Connection," and subsequently demonstrates his creative process at its most skewed on "How Bad's The Coffee." Though an oddball number at first glance, Hiatt makes a timely statement on America's Starbucks culture from the perspective of a crusty geezer dependent on the local diner for good pie and a waitress who'll call him "honey," even if it does mean swilling down "a nasty old cup of black." It's on such tunes that Hiatt most clearly shows his originality as well as the rough-hewn characteristics lurking within. The mild obscenities and indelicate slang terms that occasionally appear on the CD might call for adult discretion, but they don't come off as gratuitous or especially offensive when taken in context. Beneath This Gruff Exterior reveals an insightful man who seems at ease with his ragged edges and satisfied with his hard-won, slightly bemused perspective on life. That he so freely shares both in his rumbling, raucous rock is a major bonus for anyone willing to go along for the bumpy, exhilarating ride.

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Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.



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