John Hiatt Master of Disaster

A new John Hiatt album is scarcely a novelty. This is his 21st and you could argue that he, like post-addiction Steve Earle, is almost too prolific. Since his late ’80s creative and commercial peaks on Bring The Family and Slow Turning, Hiatt’s records have been a little inconsistent, with some tracks not living up to the standards of his best. Still, an inferior Hiatt song remains a cut above most of his peers, as this album confirms. It was recorded with legendary Memphis producer Jim Dickinson (the Replacements, Big Star) at the famed Ardent studio, using an ace band including Jim’s sons, Luther and Cody Dickinson from the North Mississippi All Stars). The result isn’t quite as bluesy or rockin’ as that might indicate, but their contributions are subtly effective. Horns are used well, as on the old-time feel of "Wintertime Blues” and a sax break on the title cut that augments the line "now he’s just a mean ole bastard when he plays the blues.” Hiatt’s voice remains the most effective instrument, one that always comes across as honest and gently persuasive. The general level of songwriting here is high, making this arguably his best album of the past decade. "Howlin’ Down the Cumberland” and "When My Love Crosses Over” are two highlights, and their referencing of specific places (Muscle Shoals, the Cumberland and Mississippi) evokes memories of earlier Hiatt classics like "Memphis In The Meantime” and "Tennessee Plates.” Let’s hope he sticks with this Tennessee team for a while. (New West)