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.