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* * * * Great Balls of Fire * * * Good Vibrations * * Maybe Baby * Running on Empty : : A HIATT COMING ON

June 28, 1987|RICHARD CROMELIN

* * * "BRING THE FAMILY." John Hiatt. A&M. Hiatt's virtues as a singer and songwriter have often been subverted by his musical settings. As much as he might rock and roll, Hiatt's sound always seemed to confine his art rather than define it.

"Bring the Family" is a real revelation--a case study in how a return to the basics can trigger all sorts of good things. The singer-guitarist is backed by guitarist Ry Cooder, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Nick Lowe, a highly credentialed unit that under the production hand of John Chelew (the impresario of McCabe's concerts in Santa Monica) displays masterful command, whether it's ferocity or delicacy that's called for.

They dig into a meaty hunk of American music, a blend of Memphis soul and Nashville country and inky blues and rootsy rock 'n' roll that together evokes an Allman-esque Southern-rock strength and flavor. Not only does it sound great, but it seems to have made Hiatt more disciplined and directed as a singer. There's still a maniacal edge lurking in him, but he's freed up his emotions and toned down his mannerisms.

The drop-off of cynicism in Hiatt's songs, though, presumably comes from a deeper source. The "positive" songs--exuberant proposals like "Memphis in the Meantime" and "Thing Called Love," and the "Let It Be"-like gospel hymn "Have a Little Faith in Me"--have more conviction than the downbeat cuts, some of which seem like exercises in the songwriter's craft.

But even if Hiatt is less florid and more direct as a writer, he still slips in a few zingers that will enhance his reputation as an off-the-wall hip humorist (check out his examination of the like-father-like-son syndrome, "Your Dad Did"). And the contrast between his tight-throated, clenched-teeth timbre and the freedom of his phrasing forms a sustaining tension, keeping the music taut and alive from supple start to tender finish.

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