As usual, the vast majority of “Best of 2011″ lists currently saturating the music blogosphere almost invariably read like litmus tests for inclusion in the Twenty-something’s Indie Dork Club. The message is clear: If you’re not still young enough to get a bartender arrested for selling you a beer, or your metrosexual twee band has no kazoo player in it, or you happen to have released your latest album on a label that’s been around for longer than six months, well, then you’re screwed.
John Hiatt’s a guy who’s been banging away at a recording career for longer than most of the aforementioned bloggers have been alive, and so it is a likely bet that few of them are aware of his existence. He’ll trade your kazoo and conch shell for a Wurlitzer and a decent pair of jeans. He’s been making alternative country music since before there was an alternative to country. And his latest effort, Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns, features some of the best work of his life.
The LP, Hiatt’s 20th, serves up the usual harvest of breezy country-folk ballads like “‘Til I Get My Lovin Back,” but as always with Hiatt it’s in his departures from that script where his grittiest characters emerge. There’s the guy in “Damn This Town” with a brother who was killed in a poker game and a drunk daddy who died insane. There’s the restless woman in “Adios to California” whose tale Hiatt tells while she loiters in some rainy Pasadena “eatin’ donuts and reading Twain.” There’s the forsaken hellhole in “Down Around My Place” where “the sun and wind leave no trace,” the fields lay fallow, and kingdoms crumble. Such are the stories of ruin and redemption Hiatt follows to their bitter ends. When he is at his best, as he is often enough throughout Dirty Jeans, they are stories you’ll savor for years.
Hiatt seems to relish in the spare, bleak atmospherics of “Down Around My Place” as a whining maelstrom of organ and guitar slowly gathers into a devastating jam. “Damn This Town” is an explosive and memorable rocker on the order of past glories such as “Perfectly Good Guitar” or “Lift Up Every Stone.” And beauties like “Hold on for Your Love” revive the rawer, stripped-down approach Hiatt largely has abandoned for the more polished work he has produced since leaving Vanguard for New West Records in 2003.
It cannot be easy to bring fresh ideas to the studio when you’ve been making albums since the days when bands like Three Dog Night still were popular enough to take your songs to the pop charts, especially when you’re recording in the wake of masterpieces like Crossing Muddy Waters, Walk On or Bring the Family. But on Dirty Jeans, Hiatt seems poised to press on into the waning years of his career with his wry grin in tact and a continued willingness to pursue his songs wherever his imagination leads them.
The summer touring season is upon us, and while the dull and faint of heart are once again lured to the same old Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam shows (Jesus, people, can the pot really be THAT good?), we thought we’d introduce you to a tentative “top ten” (er, um, eleven) list of the most interesting bands on tour this summer. We’d like to think we’re turning you on to some bands you’ve never heard of here, but we know you’re way cooler than that. So here it is, for what it’s worth:
Voodoo Glow Skulls: These guys are completely ridiculous, but ridiculous in a kind of once-in-a-lifetime spectacle sort of way. You know, the way you just HAVE to go see Dick Valentine scream about taking you to a gay bar one more time. It’s not quite “Rock ‘N Roll McDonald’s,” but it’s close enough. The Glow Skulls are what might happen if the Squirrel Nut Zippers took Dave Navarro to a polka party hosted by Everlast. Yes–seriously. They’re currently touring in support of their new LP, Southern California Street Music, featuring the single “Fire in the Dancehall”(Speaking of Dick Valtnine, he oughtta sue.) Find their tour dates here.
Colour Revolt: We’ve finally figured out the recipe for Colour Revolt: one part Modest Mouse, one part The Walkmen, one part Sparklehorse, and one part whatever the fuck you want–yields endless servings. These guys are quite possibly the most schizophrenic band on the scene right now. Just when you think you’ve got them tagged as another whiney whispering Emo outfit with tracks like “A New Family” or “Mattresses Underwater”, they transform into an offshoot of Sparta with a gritty and raw rock-out like “Circus.” They’re touring in support of their first LP, Plunder, Beg and Curse on the revered Fat Possum label; and a stream of their debut, eponymous EP is available on their website. Check out tour dates here, where you can also hear tracks from the new LP (we especially recommend “A Siren” and “Naked and Red“.)
Young Knives: Excellent indie pop that’s not afraid to show a fang now and then with tougher tracks like “Up All Night“–a kind of exceedingly English Hot Hot Heat–but only kind of. Speaking of which, this is perhaps the most shamelessly English group since Syd Barrett was cutting tracks like “Astronomy Domine” with Pink Floyd–“Knives” is British for “Knaves,” for instance, which is exactly how they got their band name. These tweed-clad Brits made a rather auspicious entry onto the scene by declaring themselves “Dead” on their debut EP, The Young Knives . . . Are Dead. But they’re not, you see. Last year they were nominated for the really important-sounding “Nationwide Mercury Prize,” and now they’re giving geek rock a good name with their strong new LP Superabundance, which they’re currently supporting with a series of summer gigs. Check out dates here, where you can also catch a streaming audio of their new album.
Sleepercar: More excellent indie pop but with a vague hankering for country. But don’t let that bullshit fool you–these guys are the side project of Jim Ward (of Sparta and At The Drive-In fame), even though they put out albums called West Texas, a title that’s about as instructive of the band’s creative origins as a White Stripes album called “Nashville” would be. And while Ward and the boys pull off the whole alt-country thing as convincingly as an Uncle Tupelo album, it’s in their departures from that sound, as on the blistering “Sound the Alarm,” that things really start to get interesting. Tour dates here. And check out their video for “A Broken Promise“–good stuff!
The Boxing Lesson: As we said in our recent review of The Boxing Lesson’s Wild Streaks and Windy Days, these guys confirm that to label a band is to kill a band. It is too easy to dismiss The Boxing Lesson as a post-punk new wave act and move blithely on to your next victim. But as Whoopsy Magazine puts it, “there’s a lot more going on here . . . catchy backing vocals, surreal lyrics, and a modern pop sensibility stand out the most.” But The Boxing Lesson aren’t just another upstart “indie” band pushing the praise of rags called “Whoopsy.” The Onion calls them “a hard-charging trio,” and The Austin Chronicle praises them for “opening a Pandora’s box of psychedelia.” Check out tour dates at their myspace page.
Detroit Cobras: If you don’t already know about these people, then it’s about god-damned time. This is balls-to-the-wall, no frills garage rock of the highest order–with a penchant for delicious covers of songs so old you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to them otherwise. It’s brought to you by the sexiest voice rock ‘n roll has heard in decades–the incomparable Rachel Nagy–whose vocals will slap a sloppy lipstick kiss across your face, smack your ass raw and call you queer. And you’ll LIKE it, too. Tour dates.
Raconteurs: As depressing, boring and unnecessary as their debut may have been (and it was), their new LP actually has us believing there’s a reason for their existence–no easy task given our loathsome indifference to the crap they served up the first time around. Check out our recent review of their new album here, and, while you’re at it, get a load of their summer tour dates.
John Hiatt: So maybe he’s old enough to be your dad, but after sitting through one of his shows, you’ll also understand that he’ll kick the shit out of your dad, too. This guy doesn’t fuck around. Check out our review of his new album, Same Old Man. And see tour dates here.
It’s getting pretty clear that we’ve probably heard the last of the great John Hiatt albums. I’m not asking for another Bring the Family—records that great only grace our ears once every decade or two at best. And I’m not one of those close-minded dip shits that bitch every time his favorite band puts out a new album because “it’s not as good as the last one,” stubbornly resistant to an artist’s creative evolution. Lord knows an artist with Hiatt’s range offers something for everyone and their mother, as adept at the crooning twang of “I Can’t Wait” as he is at the lion’s-roar of rockers like “Something Wild”–to say nothing of his “I am the other Elvis Costello” days on early albums like Slug Line and Two-Bit Monster.
What I am saying, however, is that it’s been far too long since John sounded ready to abandon himself to the song, come what may, in the kind of blistering spontaneity we heard on the brilliant and rollicking Crossing Muddy Waters that scored him a Grammy nod in 2000. Hell, even The Tiki Bar is Open, for all its polish, still offered a sound that swung with two clenched fists. But, good God, Same Old Man? Master of Disaster? (album title or Freudian slip?) What’s happening to Mr. Hiatt is happening to some of America’s most prized and once-gritty songwriters, and it’s not entirely their fault, either.
It’s called “compression,” an alleged “technology” that is, ironically, doing more to set back the soul of rock n’ roll than it is to advance it. We’re told by the advocates of compression and digital recording technology that “Compression is used to bring down the highest peaks, above the threshold level, leaving the lower levels just as they were. After that the level is restored so that the peaks are the same level as they were to start with, but the overall dynamic range is reduced. The result is a much more controlled sound.” The problem, though—as albums like Hiatt’s Same Old Man or even Dylan’s Modern Times demonstrate rather painfully—is that this “controlled sound” makes for a profoundly boring listening experience, the result of a mastering process in which all instruments in the mix are compressed so that no one sound stands out over another—presumably to maintain the listener’s attention for a longer period of time as opposed to merely bearing the song until that killer guitar solo at 2:13.
John Hiatt & The Guilty Dogs: “Perfectly Good Guitar”
The result is an album full of tracks that sound more like extended yawns than songs. David Skolnik, a self-professed “audio nut” and “vinyl guy,” shares this experience with Hiatt’s 2005 album, Master of Disaster: “I had noticed the sound wasn’t very good– so I did the unthinkable and hit the tone controls on my best audio system. After a dramatic reduction of bass and well chosen treble spice, the album came to life–like the Hiatt I’ve known and loved for 20 years! What a difference,” he concluded, “this is a fine album.” Perhaps, but when you need to hit the “treble spice” and tone controls to hear that fine album hidden in the clutter, you know something’s gone horribly wrong.
This is what Dylan meant when he told Rolling Stone that “you fight that technology in all kinds of ways, but I don’t know anybody who’s made a record that sounds decent in the past twenty years, really. You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.” Exactly, Bob. Now maybe he got a little carried away with the whole ”no one’s made a decent record in the last 20 years” bit, but you can understand the frustration of a guy who is responsible for some of the most essential rock n’ roll ever put to tape, a balls-to-the-wall blues-rock sound he pioneered at a time when lo-fi was the only fi. There’s a reason why The Black Keys recorded Thickfreakness in 14 hours on a ¼-inch 8-track Tascam, and it wasn’t just for shits and giggles.
As song after song unfolds on Same Old Man, John Hiatt’s latest offering, a painful fantasy enters the mind: what might this record have been had John been left to his own devices, allowed to strip each song down to nothing more than a solo acoustic performance recorded live in-studio with only a guitar and harmonica to cradle the guttural snarl of his immediately distinctive voice? What if, for once, John had tossed the band to the curb in a long-awaited realization of the power he commands when the excess is filtered from the substance (uh-hem, “Have A little Faith in Me,” “Learn How to Love You,” uh-hem)? With a record like Same Old Man, it’s clear that the vulnerability lurking beneath the surface of these new songs—mostly reflections on a 20-year marriage and entertaining memories from an even longer career—might have come to the fore, and we just might have had the album of John’s life on our hands. What a tragedy.
John Hiatt: “Cry Love,” Walk On (1995)
It truly pains me to make this argument about Hiatt’s more recent work, because few appreciate John’s neglected talents more than I do. I drove from Tampa to Nashville last year just to see John Hiatt do a brief opening set for the woeful Peter Frampton at a charity event (where, predictably, legions of burned-out Framptonites sat stone-eyed and baffled throughout a devastating solo performance by Hiatt, someone most of them had obviously never heard of before—one of many reasons why my girlfriend and I jetted out of there before Frampton took the stage with his prog-rock bullshit—at the Ryman Auditorium, of all places. Is nothing sacred?)
Hiatt’s life story is the stuff of an authenticity few songwriters can claim: his brother committed suicide, his father died when he was 11, his first wife also committed suicide (shortly after the birth of their daughter), and he spent his first night in Nashville sleeping under a park bench. He went on from there to spend nearly thirty years sleeping under another bench—this time the park bench of recognition—but this isn’t Leonard Cohen’s music scene anymore. As Tom Petty argues on his vicious The Last DJ album, fake breasts and a polished smile will sell better than a well-written song any day of the week. “Some angel whore that can learn a guitar lick / Heeeyyy, now that’s what I call muuuuzzziiiiiik!” Petty sneers on “Joe.” Hiatt is easily one of the most hard-nosed and unsung pioneers of what’s become known as “alt-country”—a sound Hiatt was making long before Steve Earle fused it with a rap sheet and boot spurs to make it cool.
Maybe it’s that same crowd of burned-own Framptonites who are currently bemoaning the loss of what they call John Hiatt’s “golden voice” on Same Old Man. “John has lost the golden voice,” someone called E.M. Witt whines in an amazon.com customer review, “his voice is gravelly and out of pitch at times.” (Oh, no! Gravelly? You mean it sounds like a real human being occasionally! Eeeww!!) And maybe it’s this crowd for whom the whole “compression” crave was fashioned. But anyone who comes to a John Hiatt record in pursuit of a “golden voice” should probably be directed to the bin of remaindered N-Synch CDs over in the corner instead.
John Hiatt: “Have A Little Faith in Me,” Bring the Family (1987)
We don’t ask John for golden voiced pop ditties—we ask him to be real, give it to us straight, and take no easy turns. His voice has always been gruff, and, until recently, so was his music–and that’s what made his records so great. The problem with Same Old Man is that it is boring, and that’s not entirely John’s fault–the culprit is the same thing Dylan complained about after releasing Modern Times–digital recording technology and its “compression” approach to mastering is sucking the life out of these songs; the result is an album that more closely resembles a fleeting drizzle in a cold empty park than a record.
It happened on Master of Disaster and it happens again here. It’s a downright travesty—and I mean that. Either John can’t hear it himself or he just isn’t speaking up. As the aforementioned “audio nut” David Skolnik suggests, “I don’t think John should have to suffer a let down of his public perception because of his tech people- he deserves better!” I wholeheartedly agree, but until Hiatt hands down the ass-whoopin’ those “tech people” have earned, the decline in that “public perception” may become precipitous.
The Spill on Hiatt’s new album, Same Old Man . . .
Associated Press: “Same Old Man ranks with the best music of Hiatt’s 34-year recording career . . . “
Glide Magazine:“Same Old Man may be the most accessible album of John Hiatt’s career . . .”
411 Mania: “Hiatt puts in another solid studio album, that sorrowfully won’t get much airplay . . . “
Bamboo Nation: “Same Old Man is absent any out-of-the-ballpark, radio-friendly singles, but the album is so consistently excellent as a whole that its culminative effect is a bit disconcerting at first . . . “
After a forty-year run as the master of Mellow, not much has changed on Planet Donovan. It is 2004, and the wisdom is still as abundant as the weed. Poets in berets still blow saxes in the coffeehouse at night, and flowers still don heads of bushy hair in the crowd. The man himself may be a little older now, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not coming on:
If I was your lover I’d take you to the sky
If you are feeling low I will make you high
Let me be your lover baby I will be your beau
This is not exactly the language of a man taking his social security check to the bank on the way to the golf course. In fact, Beat Café is an album that delivers the urgency and freshness one might expect from the debut album of a 20-something nobody, no less a 60-something flower-child of the original Woodstock generation.
Hushed and haunted, Beat Café plays like a long, seductive whisper from somewhere within the listener’s consciousness – a knowing and familiar voice spreading the rumor that utopia is not something that happens in the external world, but rather within the self. It is a sunrise of the soul; a placid and breezy terrain the mind brings you to when the gates of its imagination are unlocked. “Gonna do all the things I’ve never done before, gonna get myself together somehow,” Donovan sings on the downright wicked “The Question.” Many of these new tunes expand upon the kind of optimism with which Donovan managed to pit himself against that brooding, bitter and more famous American counterpart, Bob Dylan.
Donovan: “Season of the Witch”
Unlike Donovan’s last album – the spare but alluring Sutras produced by Rick Rubin for American Recordings in 1996 – Beat Café explodes into a varied and distinctive musical brew. Danny Thompson’s bass playing is worthy of Apollo’s crown, and the legendary Jim Keltner turns in a surprisingly hip performance on drums and percussion, managing to keep up with Donovan as he slips in and out of beat after groovy beat.
Whereas Rubin seemed to make a Rick Rubin record of Sutras – mired as it was in his minimalist approach – John Chelew allows for the making of a Donovan record this time around. Chelew, whose resume includes work with John Hiatt and Richard Thompson, proves a more sympathetic cohort throughout this musically fascinating project, even lending a hand on keyboards throughout the set. The atmosphere is much more relaxed and suggests that the artist was allowed to breathe freely during these sessions.
The only resemblance between this latest album and Sutras is the mystic airiness of Donovan’s lyrics, an eastern spiritualism cloaked in the psychedelic lexicon Donovan continues to employ. “You yin my yang / I’ll yang your yin,” he directs on “Yin My Yang.” For an album as overtly conscious of its heritage as this one, it seems almost obligatory that Donovan would nod to Oar, Alexander “Skip” Spence’s masterpiece of psychedelic folk/rock from 1969. “I could use me some yin for my yang,” Spence sings on his “Dixie Peach Promenade (yin for yang),” “that would make everything alright.” Spence’s work is not only a direct echo of Donovan’s “Yin My Yang,” but of the entire universe Beat Café evokes – from its “beatnik café” where “the reefer blow” to the time and place where “there’ll be music in the air/flowers in your hair/life without a care.”
But where the nostalgic lyrics retread familiar territory, the music reinvents an artist in his fifth decade as a performer. The beautifully brittle “Shambala” closes the album with a moving dream of yearning, escape and resignation:
Take me home back to Shambala
where peaceful rivers flow
Take me home back to Shambala
Where seeds of love they sow
The appropriately titled “Whirlwind” – a song that wins the “coolest groove of the year” award – is dark and sly enough to suffice as the soundtrack for a land-falling hurricane. Most startling, though, is Donovan’s impassioned cover of the folk standard, “The Cuckoo” which, amid so many interpretations of the well-traveled song, ranks as one of the most commanding and memorable.
Really, though, only Donovan’s own smooth voice manages to outdo Danny Thompson’s pervasive double bass, which thumps and groans through every minute of the album, lending a jazzy depth to the distinctly international sound Donovan achieves here. Thompson raises “The Question” into a kind of frenetic street march through “the darkest hour of night,” while abrupt solos on “Love floats” or the instant classic, “Poorman’s Sunshine,” fuse these songs with the spontaneity of a particularly inspired demo. It bears mentioning that Donovan tosses some killer guitar licks of his own into the mix, most notably on the deliciously fiendish title track.
After following up a prolific period of creativity in the 70s with two decades of piercing silence, the release of a new Donovan album is unlikely enough. That the man would emerge out of nowhere with the coolest album of the year nearly forty years after his debut is nothing short of astonishing. Beat Café is further proof that something incredible happened in the decade of assassinations, flowers and weather factions, and the story is still far from over.