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PERFECTLY GOOD HIATT : Voice and Lyrics Remain the Focus Amid Thick Eruptions of Distorted, Melodic Guitar

September 02, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition

John Hiatt was already a highly regarded rock songwriter when he released "Bring the Family," the 1987 album in which he found his own voice by telling his own story.

It was the first installment of an outstanding trilogy that also included "Slow Turning" (1988) and "Stolen Moments" (1990). The three albums formed a mature self-portrait of a man finding tranquillity and meaning in a happy domesticity after years of hell-bent excess pursued at great cost.

But buoyant as he might have sounded at times on those albums, Hiatt was too honest, and too insightful, to settle for a happily-ever-after sense that all was neatly settled. Those albums also underscored the notion that demons can continue to lurk in our inner closets, even when we've managed to open the shades and let some light into our lives.

Last year as a side project, Hiatt took time to record and tour as a member of the cult-hero collaborative band, Little Village. In it, he teamed with guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner, the three outstanding rock pros who had backed him on "Bring the Family."

Meanwhile, Rhino Records recently issued "Love Gets Strange: The Songs of John Hiatt," a compilation of 18 Hiatt-written songs recorded by other artists from 1978 to 1990. The artist roster, which includes Rosanne Cash, Marshall Crenshaw, the Neville Brothers, Rodney Crowell, John Doe, Emmylou Harris and the Jeff Healey Band, indicates the range of Hiatt's appeal. (The collection, however, doesn't include Bonnie Raitt's "Thing Called Love," the best-known cover of a Hiatt song).

Now, Hiatt himself is back with a new album, "Perfectly Good Guitar." He could have called it "Bring the Fuzzbox."

At 40, the album finds him making lots of very rude and raucous guitar noises with players who hail from a younger rock generation--including guitarist Michael Ward of the band School of Fish, and drummer Brian MacLeod of Wire Train. Hiatt says he got into some newer rock by listening to the tapes his 15-year-old stepson brought home. That led to his hooking up with Matt Wallace, a producer whose previous credits included such college-rock faves as Faith No More and Paul Westerberg.

Hiatt hasn't gone grunge, thank goodness. At its most aggressive, "Perfectly Good Guitar" follows the Neil Young & Crazy Horse method in which thick eruptions of distorted yet melodic guitar embellish excellent song-craft. The voice and lyrics remain front and center instead of being concealed, after the current fashion, in a cloud of electric smog.

And Hiatt surely hasn't abandoned his roots. With a wonderfully pliant voice that is convincing and at home whether howling up high or growling down low, he still sounds like an amalgam of all three singers of the Band, rock's quintessential distillers of country, blues and R&B roots.

The stylistic range on "Perfectly Good Guitar" extends from an elegiac anthem rocker, "Buffalo River Home," which nicks the chorus melody of Young's folkie ballad, "Thrasher" (from "Rust Never Sleeps"), to visits to Southern R&B haunts both swampy and mysterious ("Old Habits") and low-down and gritty ("When You Hold Me Tight"). Then there's "The Wreck of the Barbie Ferrari," in which a bizarre rhythmic construction that merges Indian raga with bouncy funk underscores the ultimate in black humor: a funny song about a guy shotgunning his wife and kids to death. Maybe Hiatt could have called this one "Kill the Family." But he leaves himself an out with a slyly written lyric that suggests the fellow might be shooting up a doll collection rather than his own flesh and blood. In either case, it's a memorable portrait of a man driven mad by the deadening ennui of a sanitized, static, Barbie-and-Ken existence.

Moving beyond the autobiography of his past three albums, Hiatt has found a unifying theme summed up in the title of the album's driving opening track: "Something Wild." He keeps trying to put his finger on the strange, inchoate forces within us that give rise to life's most exciting passions, yet also can be the inner engines that destroy our happiness.

Hiatt wants the passion. Without it, you might just be driven to take a shotgun to your doll's-house existence. But he sees how that "something wild" in us can also prey on the good, secure, sustaining relationships that we need.

He doesn't pretend to offer any firm answers: "Now there's only two things in life, but I forget what they are," he wryly demurs during "Buffalo River Home."

With Hiatt, you get somebody who is asking the interesting questions and knows how to rock while doing it.

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