Perfectly Good Guitar
John Hiatt has always been highly regarded among the songwriting set -- those critics, fans and peers who set a large stock in intelligent lyrics, smart tunes and musical craftsmanship. Hiatt's songs are heavily covered by other artists who value the can't-miss quality and the things-are-not-as-simple-as-they-seem edge of his best tunes, but he's never gotten what would seem to be his full due as an interpreter of his own material. Rhino recently released Love Gets Strange, a collection of Hiatt's songs sung by admiring colleagues, and while it highlights the obvious -- that Hiatt's tunes can withstand whatever treatment might be applied to them -- it doesn't do much else.
A better way to enter Hiatt's songwriting odyssey -- he's released twelve albums and one "Best Of" so far -- is through his latest, Perfectly Good Guitar. It's an album of love songs, among other things, that pays homage to everything from women to the road to the guitars Hiatt cherishes. It's also a running nod to the styles of what must be Hiatt's fave guitar bands, from the Replacements to the Stones to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hiatt may keep busy writing (more than 600 songs at last count), but that hasn't kept him from listening to others -- and, hearing him all but impersonate, say, Neil Young, it sounds like the man has mastered his own craft and had energy enough left over to master the craft of others.
Of course, song quality isn't the hook that's pushing Perfectly Good Guitar into the media limelight. That would be the title cut, wherein Hiatt plays the part of a bemused curmudgeon reprimanding Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and his guitar-smashing ancestors for criminal lack of soul. "I wonder who they think they are, smashing the perfectly good guitars," he sings.
But if Hiatt, a noted health fanatic and peacekeeping family man, isn't smashing any guitars these days, he has at least rediscovered the sort of rock that gives rise to that explosiveness. After his most recent trilogy of albums, Bring the Family, Slow Turning and Stolen Moments -- which firmly established him as a buttoned-down elder statesman of the songwriter's craft -- and a liberating stint as one-fourth of Little Village (with Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner), Hiatt robbed the cradle for his new backing band, made up of School of Fish guitarist Michael Ward, Wire Train drummer Brian McLeod and bassist John Pierce. Matt Wallace, who has produced Faith No More and Paul Westerberg, mans the helm. The results bridge some sort of generation gap, with Hiatt's insight riding bareback on some of the buckingest guitar rock he's been paired with since Slow Turning.
"Something Wild," written for Iggy Pop some years back, opens the record with a prescient howl, and Hiatt and band keep the pace through "Perfectly Good Guitar" before slowing things down for "Buffalo River Home" and "Blue Telescope." "Cross My Fingers" is another screamer, leading into "The Wreck of a Barbie Ferrari" (the berzerko protagonist blasts his child's dolls full of holes before turning the gun on himself) and the funkier-than-mud "When You Hold Me Tight." "Loving a Hurricane" sounds as much like Neil Young as Neil Young ever did, and closes the album with a distorted blast.
Perfectly Good Guitar isn't Hiatt's masterpiece -- that's an honor generally reserved for Bring the Family (though some of us have a soft spot for Slow Turning) -- and it doesn't have quite the emotional impact of those albums, written during a time when Hiatt was coping with the suicide of his wife. It is, though, enormously memorable, and a solid return to form. The band Hiatt has assembled to tour (same personnel as the album) is pushing him in the right direction, and even if they aren't likely to be the equal of the Goners (Hiatt's backup band on the Slow Turning tour, featuring Louisiana guitar wiz Sonny Landreth), they ought to put on an energetic show. Old-timers are still talking about Hiatt and the Goners' 1989 stop at Fitzgerald's, when the packed-to-the-gills house finally left the building to find half an inch of ice on their windshields. There's no predicting the weather, but I expect that this time, like last, the music will provide the memories.
John Hiatt plays Wednesday, December 15 at the Tower Theatre, 1201 Westheimer. Tickets cost $12.50, general admission. Call 629-3700 for more information.
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Jon Spencer, ex-of Pussy Galore, Boss Hog et al., follows up last year's self-titled debut with Extra Width (Matador), and in the right mood, you might think it's the only thing worth listening to. "Deconstruction of the blues" is the fancy mission that's been ascribed to Spencer's project, but I don't hear the theory nearly so much as a raging continuation of Nick Cave's raunchiest stuff and Stooges-era Iggy Pop. The three-piece band can follow a groove into the grave when they want to ("Afro"), but most of the time they're too busy shattering it with guitar bursts that make you wonder if maybe you don't have about six more speakers than you thought you had.
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