In the early 90’s I had heard of John Hiatt but I had never listened to him. I saw Perfectly Good Guitar on the shelves at Turtles Records & Tapes (RIP) so I plunked down my $14.99 and purchased it, hoping it would be good. Upon first listen I was knocked on my ass. It was perfect and twenty-six years later still remains a go-to when I need a pure rock ‘n roll pick me up. I tell you that so you will understand where I come from when I say I am a John Hiatt fan. Hiatt has tried on numerous hats since that release and he has created a strong body of work without ever pandering for listeners.
His latest release The Eclipse Sessions (New West) sounds like Hiatt went into the studio and put together an album as it unfolded organically. It does not seem pre-meditated to be one way or another but instead is a collection of songs that compliment each other and continue to showcase why he is one of the best singer-songwriters working today.
Produced by Kevin McKendree, who also plays piano and organ all over the album, the band includes longtime Hiatt drummer Kenneth Blevins, bassist Patrick O’Hearn, and McKendree’s son Yates McKendree, who also found time to engineer the album, on lead electric and acoustic slide guitar. Three songs were recorded during the solar eclipse that passed over much of the U.S. last August, and the feeling of everyone being connected clearly influenced the direction of the album. I found it interesting that Hiatt said he has been “lost before” when it comes to the process of writing and recording a new record and he felt this was in the “same musical (if not stylistic) lineage as Bring the Family and Crossing Muddy Waters.
“Cry to Me” opens the collection and it has that rollicking piano and shuffling backbeat that Hiatt has employed throughout his career. His voice is more weathered, less forced, almost relaxed and he nails the opening track. “Aces Up Your Sleeve” may be one of my favorite songs from Hiatt. It is a slow contemplative look back at a love since gone. It is tender, a little grizzled in delivery and heartbreaking at the same time. Sparse instrumentation, slowly plucked acoustic guitar and minimal percussion throughout only serves to drive the song home. “Poor Imitation of God” reminds me of the roadhouse rave ups made famous by Kevin Gordon so much that I can only hear it the way Kevin would sing it. “Over the Hill” would be disregarded in the hands of a lesser artist as its tongue in cheek reference to the singer being past his prime could have easily ventured into self-parody but it never does. “Outrunning My Soul” follows and it competes with “Aces Up Your Sleeve” as my favorite song on the album. From the opening Hiatt’s guitar sounds a little like Bowie’s “China Girl” mixed with Kevin McKendree’s pulsing electric piano (taking inspiration from T-Rex’ “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” the song finds Hiatt in fine vocal form. “I Like the Odds of Loving You” is a swampy country blues number with some excellent slide guitar courtesy of Yates McKendree and “One Stiff Breeze” rocks it up in classic Hiatt style.
The Eclipse Sessions is classic Hiatt. It never really plays off of his earlier works and sets a tone that is uniquely its own. He owns the moment and created a very personal look into his psyche. There are not many artists who do not get caught in the trappings of their past successes and after 44 years I imagine it is difficult not to repeat yourself, but Hiatt still finds away to remain true to himself and move forward as an artist. Hiatt is touring in support of the new album and I am sure these new songs will stand strongly beside the amazing songs from his catalog. Get your copy here: http://www.johnhiatt.com/ Read an earlier review of his show and see some live concert photos of him, here: Show Review: John Hiatt Performed with Grinning Rapport at Frederick MD’s Weinberg Center