Crossing Muddy Waters

John Hiatt

Vanguard Records, 2000

http://www.johnhiatt.com

REVIEW BY: Steve Cooper

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/06/2001

John Hiatt hasn't made a four-star album since 1988's Slow Turning. His studio releases -- '97's Little Head, 95's Walk On, 93's Perfectly Good Guitar -- all had their moments and were fairly solid three-star offerings, but, all in all, the songwriting seams were showing.

Oh, there were some first-rate tunes like "Perfectly Good Guitar," "Cry Love," "Ethylene," and "Buffalo River Home." Alas, there were lyrical stretches like "Sure Pinocchio" and "The Wreck Of The Barbie Ferrari" where Hiatt tried to shore up his crumbling muse with strained pluck and wit. Also there were songs that unsuccessfully attempted to "rock out" so hard one wouldn't notice the lack of songwriting craft (thinking "Shredding The Document," "Cross My Fingers," and "Pirate Radio" here). All things considered, played and sung, Hiatt was in a funk.

The happy news is Hiatt's latest, Crossing Muddy Waters, is a solid four on the star meter. The inspiration? Perhaps his move to the more songwriter-friendly Vanguard label. His last two albums were on Capitol, with all before that on A&M. This scale-down label move has given Hiatt the courage to let the musical chips fall where the woodchuck chucked them.

Vanguard is a basically a 60s folkie label just now getting back into the "new music" market. This fact has perhaps enabled Hiatt to mostly "go acoustic" this time out. There are no drums to be heard, though there is some foot-stomping, metal chair-banging percussion courtesy of long-time Hiatt cohort Davey Faragher. Besides Hiatt on acoustic 6-string guitar, harmonium, and resonator, David Immergluck abets on mandolin, acoustic 12-string, and very occasional electric slide guitar. That's it.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Hiatt, of course, provides lead vocals, with both Immergluck and Faragher helping on harmonies. The feel is that of a back porch guitar pull. Most of the songs were recorded live to tape without overdubs. One could call Crossing Muddy Waters Hiatt's first "stringband" recording.

The acoustic backdrop leads Hiatt's new songs into folk/blues territory rather than his customary rock/r&b thang. Take, for instance, the opening cut, "Lincoln Town." With Hiatt on resonator guitar, Immergluck on mandolin, and Faragher on footstomps and handclaps, the song becomes a country blues. Hiatt's growling, guttural vocal is relaxed and assured and resides naturally within the song. It appears to be a song about leaving Detroit: "I'm going down to Lincoln town/Turn your pretty little head around/Take the next train outward bound/Carry you out of Lincoln town." It is a fine, bluesy setting for Hiatt's voice - much better than the overly-rocking context of his last three studio releases.

The moody title track features acoustic guitar and mandolin and has nothing to do with McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters). "Crossing muddy waters (small "m" small "w")" is actually a deft metaphor for giving up on a troubled (muddy) relationship: "Left me in my tears to drown/She left a baby daughter/Now the river's wide and deep and brown/She's crossing muddy waters." In fact, the proliferation of leaving and bust up songs on Crossing Muddy Waters would leave one to believe Hiatt and his second wife are on the outs, though he insists, in recent interviews, that they are happily (if doggedly) married.

Another "leavin'" song is "Gone," whose up-tempo, "whistling in the dark" attitude is the opposite of the title track's reaction to abandonment: "Gone/Like a Nixon file/Gone, gone away/Gone/Like my landlord's smile/Gone, gone away." The hurt is just a real, but the coping mantra is decidedly "screw it." Lyrically, it is one of Hiatt's more clever, in-the-pocket compositions, and some country star should countrify it post haste and release it to world acclaim.

One of Hiatt's songwriting strengths, besides clever stompers like "Gone," is the anthemic ballad. Consider his 1987 classic Bring The Family with its twin, killer ballads "Lipstick Sunset" and "Have A Little Faith In Me." Or, take a listen to Slow Turning's oft-covered "Feels Like Rain." Besides the title track, another moody Hiatt classic this time around is "God's Golden Eyes." It appears to be a song about man's quest for that final, serene resting place: "Every facet so perfect/And every cut the proper size/When we find ourselves staring in/God's golden eyes." It has soul, presence, and grace. In short, it is another Hiatt ballad composition ripe for covering.

I can't conclude this review of Crossing Muddy Waters without mentioning the new "gospel" song. "Lift Up Every Stone," with its Baptist call and response chorus, is a bona fide, toe-tapping, hand-clapping wonder: "You gotta lift up every stone now sister/Gotta clear this field and build that wall." It could also be a commentary on this fine album. Hiatt has crossed his muddied, musical waters, cleared his field of contractual constraints, and built a new wall that suits him, not the record mavens.

Rating: A

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© 2001 Steve Cooper and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Vanguard Records, and is used for informational purposes only.