July 29, 2005
They don’t make many songwriters smarter, tougher or more consistent than John Hiatt.
And Hiatt hasn’t made many albums smarter, tougher or more consistent than his latest one, Master of Disaster. Indeed, this ranks up there with Crossing Muddy Waters, his under-rated acoustic album from about five years ago.
As we’ve come to expect from Hiatt, this record is soulful, rootsy, full of tales to astonish and dripping with the singer’s wry humor and hard-earned wisdom.
And on this one, he’s got a great band to boot. Produced by Memphis music guru Jim Dickinson (who plays keyboards here credited as “East Memphis Slim“), Master features Dickinson’s sons Luther on guitar and Cody on drums (they’re the core of the North Mississippi All Stars) plus Muscle Shoals titan David Hood on bass. (Speaking of musical families, he’s the father of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers.) Some tunes feature a funky horn section.
The title song deals with a guitar picker who lost at love and became a heroin addict.
The verses are in first person (“Eight ball pounding in my lungs …”) though Hiatt steps back to third person for the chorus.
“The Master of Disaster/Gets tangled in his Telecaster/He can't play it any faster/When he plays the blues/When he had the heart to ask her/And every note just shook the plaster/Now he's just a mean old bastard/When he plays the blues.”There’s no great, disastrous Telecaster solo on this song, just a sweet greasy sax.
Sometimes Hiatt and band rock hard . The ominous “Love’s Not Where We Thought We Left It” almost screams for a Lindsey Buckingham guitar solo.
But they do a good job on the softer acoustic songs too, such as ‘Howlin’ Down the Cumberland” and the automobile ode “Thunderbird” (“From the old Volkswagon/Back to the Model T/A lot of men died so you could ride with me In my Thunderbird”)
“Wintertime Blues” is a cool near jug-band romp with some of the funniest lyrics on the album (“Three hours of daylight and all of them gray/The suicide prevention group has all run away“). Is it just me or does this melody consciously make reference to “In the Summer Time” by Mungo Jerry?
“Back on the Corner” has a similar feel. With Luther’s slide guitar and a subdued Dixieland horn section, this sounds like a long-lost tune by The Band. And the first bridge is hilarious:
“Used to take seven pills just to get up in the morning/From seven different doctors with seven different warnings/I’d call ‘em up to say that I’m coming apart/They’d say call us up later when the fireworks start”There’s pure country in “Old School” (featuring “T-Bone” Tommy Burroughs on fiddle). And there’s raw soul. It’s not hard to imagine Al Green singing “Find You At Last.”
The emotional centerpiece of this album is the acoustic “Cold River,” a sad tale of a couple of drifters (he’s a pool shark, she’s a truck-stop hooker) who abandon their baby while making their way to Chicago.
Hiatt tells the story matter-of-factly, noting the couple’s justification. (“Tell me which one of us rounders/ would you trust this baby to?”) Though the narrator sings that, “some Texas woman found him,” a listener isn’t sure whether this is true or just wishful thinking. You don’t know what happened to the infant, though the couple makes it to their destination: “That night they slept like babies/in Chicago town.”
In some ways Hiatt reminds me of the masked luchadores pictured on the front and back covers and on the lyrics booklet. When he crawls back in the ring you know it’s going to be a thrill. It may be all show biz, but the bruises are real.
*Here Come the Choppers by Loudon Wainwright III. This album has the most impressive band Wainwright ever assembled for a record -- including Bill Frisel on guitar, Greg Leisz on a variety of strings, Jim Keltner on drums.
It sounds great. But I just wish the songs were as strong as the musicians here -- and as strong as Wainwright is capable of writing.
To be sure, there are some potential Wainwright classics here.
“Hank and Fred” is about the singer learning of the death of Mr. Rogers on the day he visits Hank Williams’ grave in Montgomery, Ala. I still don’t quite get the cosmic connection between the great country singer and the mild-mannered kid-show host, but when Wainwright sings that he cried, it’s real and it somehow makes sense.
There’s “No Sure Way,“ a sad song about riding the subway under the World Trade Center shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. “
The walls were tiled, I hadn’t noticed/ They seemed so antiseptic and clean/But we knew what we were under/The lights were on/that seemed obscene.”Like any decent Loudon album, there are some good family album tunes. Here there are songs about his grandparents, “Nanny,” an up tempo tune about his beloved outspoken, gin-and-tonic-sipping granny who took him in after he got busted for drugs as a youth. “Half Fist” deals with his grandfather, Loudon Sr., who died before he was born.
And there’s “When You Leave,“ a heartbreaking, guilt-ridden song about divorce and leaving his kids.
“Who would have thought or could believe/Things go so badly when you leave/The skin you saved is growing slack/And those you left don’t want you back.”But too many songs here are forgettable or downright dumb -- such as the near-7-minute title tune, which about enemy helicopters destroying Los Angeles.
So keep your sidemen’s phone numbers Loudon. And call them back when you’ve written a worthy set of songs.