Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt

New West Records, 2020

http://www.lillyhiatt.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/05/2020

The beautiful thing about Americana is that it’s a big tent—there’s room for artists who lean toward country, or folk, or roots-rock, or blues, and maybe especially those who dabble in all of the above. The real test is in the songwriting; as we’ve seen again and again, strong songs performed by solid players will always stand up in a way that isn’t necessarily the case with the reverse.

Lilly Hiatt comes by her songwriting skills honestly; she’s paid dues aplenty over the course of the past decade and three increasingly sophisticated and well-received albums. And while some might speculate that she’s enjoyed an advantage as the daughter of one of the genre’s iconic songwriting talents (John Hiatt), like so many second-generation performers, it’s more likely true that Lilly Hiatt has been burdened by the weight of expectations.

Whether or not that’s actually the case, you don’t hear that kind of weight at all here. Instead, Walking Proof offers as free and natural and pure and incisive a set of songs as you could ever hope to find, full of sharp-elbowed wisdom and hard-won insight. It’s the work of a mature artist with an instinctual understanding of how to write to her own strengths.

One of her strengths is the ability to adapt her very pretty voice to a range of different song styles, a talent she wastes no time putting to work. On airy, elegiac opener “Rae,” her vocals are delicate and achingly pretty; then “P-Town” arrives in a blaze of big electric guitars and thrumming Hammond and she steps up to meet the song’s muscle. Here and throughout, her lyrics are stream-of-consciousness and rather impressionistic, yet filled with striking details and images (“Tennis shoes in a London sky” in the former; “Pacing circles on your balcony” in the latter).my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

From there Hiatt mixes things up nicely, moving from tart rocker “Little Believer” into thoughtful mid-tempo number “Some Kind Of Drug” (with Daddy John on harmony vocals) into the lilting, thoroughly charming “Candy Lunch.” The latter’s lyric is one of her finest, whimsical verses giving way to piercing self-knowledge at the chorus: “Cuz nothing seems to go better when I / Grab onto anything too tight, too tight / I can’t count all of the times / I said I’d never show my cards / But here you are.”

The title track is as close as Hiatt gets to pure country, a steady-on, rather philosophical number featuring Amanda Shires on fiddle and harmony vocals. Shires sticks around for one more to provide harmonies on “Drawl,” a country-folk number offering kind commiseration and gentle advice to a troubled crush. The guitars and tempo ramp up again for the twinkly “Brightest Star,” another tune offering support to a friend in need of it.

The songs only get stronger late in the game. “Never Play Guitar” is an album highlight, a bouncy barroom rocker about the eternal search for a quiet place to play guitar and write. Likewise for the airy country-rocker “Move,” featuring Luke Schneider on pedal steel and one of Hiatt’s sharper lyrics, about facing up to your problems rather than running away (“You’re gonna have to learn how to deal with it / The only thing you know how to do is move”). Closer “Scream” is a dreamy ballad whose declaration-of-independence lyrics read like a raging rocker (”I want someplace that’s just my own to scream / And I ain’t slowing down for nobody”), but land that much more powerfully for the restraint Hiatt exercises as she gradually cranks up the tension at the song’s core.

When iTunes rolled past the end of Lilly Hiatt’s Walking Proof and right into Linda Ronstadt’s Greatest Hits, I had to smile; Hiatt has a similar kind of crossover appeal, but more importantly a similar kind of fire that can’t be faked—and unlike Ronstadt, she writes her own material. Walking Proof is the work of a mature, driven singer-songwriter who knows her craft and knows herself. This album brims with smart, witty, big-hearted songs, sung by an artist who believes in them, and convinced me to believe in her.

Rating: B+

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