JOHN HIATT Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns New West NWA3055 (2011)
A John Hiatt album is always worthy of note and 'Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns' is his best effort for some considerable time. It's an album that expands John's oeuvre in terms of its rich imagery, the pristine sonic quality and some imaginative arrangements. Producer Kevin Shirley steps up to the plate by intuitively overseeing John's songs and empathising with his abilities rather than swamping him with a big wall of sound.
Hiatt is of course the thinking man's wordsmith whose warped lyrics have made him the recording artist equivalent of David Lynch and an apparent inspiration to the weird southern gothic stylings of alt. country rockers like Blanch. Certainly the magnificent opening track 'Damn This Town' confirms the comparison with its edgy lyrics and noir like characters brought to life by an exhilarating production. The contrast between Hiatt's gnarled vocals and the big vista production also makes the lead single the perfect introduction to a superb album.
The subtle word play of the album title 'Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymn' is evident throughout eleven tracks that make the most of the magical connection between Hiatt's lyrics and their integral relationship with his song structures.
Even a simple country ballad such as 'Til I Get My Lovin Back' makes the most of a gentle pedal steel accompaniment on an evocative love song, while John's excellent vocal performance on the radio friendly 'I Love That Girl' sits comfortably alongside a catchy hook, poppy bv's and a resonant chiming guitar sound. It's the kind of song you could imagine Tom Petty writing in one of his more commercial moments.
The real joy of this album lies in its organic feel, embracing the kind of polished but 'live in the studio' band feel that would be an anathema to most die hard Nashville country artists. This is particularly so on the back porch, JJ Cale influenced 'All the Way Under' which is the perfect meeting of country gospel and a band groove.
And as if to emphasize the ebb and flow of the album the following 'Don't Wanna Leave You Now' is a gently paced wistful ballad full of lyrical self recrimination and longing, brought to life by a restrained production that features a gently ascending string arrangement, deft piano and a subtle dobro part. The sweeping ballad benefits from a nuanced production as John emotes superbly on one of his best vocal performances.
'Detroit Made' picks up the pace with a train-time rhythm propelled by warm accordion and twanged guitar. And having slipped into another exhilarating band groove, Hiatt drops down a gear for another album highlight on the Dylan influenced 'Hold On To Your Love'.
It's a truly epic ballad full of reverb and twang on which his words meld seamlessly into the chords as the production glistens and his lyrics sparkle; 'Buildings walled up, electricity drained'. It's one of those rare songs where a lyric sheet is essential as the colourful words and music intertwine as only poetry can. It's also a song that features another stellar vocal from John and the climactic song is given extra punch by a Dave Gilmour style slide guitar break.
If his previous album 'The Open Road' succinctly showcased his narrative ability and his rich metaphors, then 'Dirty Jeans' is Hiatt fulfilling his potential to the full. It's also an album that moves him out of his comfort zone, confirming the suspicion that producer Shirley really does have a feel for what John can still achieve.
'Adios To California' is a partly autobiographical look back at his time on the West Coast and provides the line that became the album title. It's the kind of song Dave Alvin has made his name with, but in Hiatt's hands it has more of a real and lived in feel, suggesting that when his lyrics are plucked from the self confessed 'junk floating around in my head', and grounded in his own experience, he's a first class narrator.
As if to emphasize the fact, he belatedly adds his own take on 9/11 with the harrowing 'When New York Had Her Heart Broke', a song couched in a celestial intro and one that contrary to Hiatt's self confessed pessimism and negativity finishes on a surprisingly optimistic note; 'ah but she will rise again'.
'Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns' is a confident and at times poignant piece of work, penned by a 58 year old singer song writer who sounds fresh, reinvigorated, and at the top of his game. It's an essential purchase and has the kind of heart and soul at its core that will lead to many repeated plays.