The Tiki Bar Is Open

John Hiatt

Vanguard Records, 2001

http://www.johnhiatt.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/08/2002

I have this vision. In it, the solemn faces of our four presidents enshrined on Mount Rushmore are joined by a fifth one, one who embodies the stature in his field of Washington, the quirky contradictions of Jefferson, the raw honesty of Abe Lincoln and the pure cussedness of Teddy Roosevelt. It's true the idea may sound a little wacked-out, but then, that great American institution John Hiatt has never been one to hold back on a good punch line, even when the joke was on himself.

Especially when the joke was on himself.

Like Bruce Springsteen before him, Hiatt makes up for what his voice lacks in the way of smooth edges and range by writing terrific lyrics and singing them with total conviction. It's a humble voice, you might say, but the writer behind it is as wise and eloquent and sassy as any in the history of rock and roll. Just ask Bonnie Raitt, or Eric Clapton, or Emmylou Harris, or Nick Lowe, just a small sampling from the diverse roster of stellar acts who've covered Hiatt songs over the years.

The Tiki Bar Is Open arrives at a time in Hiatt's career when some thought they might have detected the tell-tale signs of a fade. After years of scuffling from one label to the next, he hit a critical and commercial peak in the late 80s with the acclaimed Bring The Family and its companion piece, Slow Turning.

But since then his albums had grown increasingly erratic, ranging from the brilliant, moody country-folk of Walk Onmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 to the surprisingly pedestrian lounge rock of Little Head. Last year's acoustic showcase Crossing Muddy Waters suggested a resurgence, but it took this, his first full-band album in four years, to confirm it -- Hiatt is in fine form and not going anywhere just yet.

Tiki Bar reunites Hiatt with his Slow Turning-era bandmates The Goners, and it qualifies as a bona fide musical event. Guitarist Sonny Landreth in particular gets plenty of chances to shine here, his unique, shimmery/crinkly slide tones decorating tunes like the blues stomper "Hangin' Round Here" and the soaring lament "I'll Never Get Over You." Kenneth Blevins on drums and Dave Ranson on bass also get ample opportunity to demonstrate why this maybe be the best unheralded reunion of the year. The Goners' remarkably versatile sound, raucous here, gorgeous there, fits John Hiatt like a good pair of cowboy boots; a few listens and you hope he never takes them off again.

Hiatt is a true chronicler of the American heart, his songs populated by quirky, flawed characters whose struggles are often more interesting than any outcomes they may achieve, his lyrics filled with the telling details of a truly gifted writer. Take the guy in "All The Lilacs In Ohio," trapped in a looping memory of a long-ago love, the scent of lilacs carrying him back again and again. "You might see your own ass in a / Double whiskey glass / But you cannot erase her smile / And you'll never write it down / Never find her in this town / Of phantom dreams and fingernail files / It was springtime and you were just a boy."

The amazing part is how Hiatt fills these stories out with a dynamic range of musical styles. "Lilacs" could have been a barroom weeper; instead it's a driving rocker topped off with a lilting high-end riff from Landreth. Elsewhere Hiatt ranges effortlessly from the steady-on country-rock of "Rock Of Your Love" (embellished nicely by Landreth's swampy acoustic slide), to the giddy blues shouter "I Know a Place," which sounds like a lost Ray Charles track minus the piano.

His range is never clearer than on the final two tracks. "Come Home To You" is a somber ballad with a remarkable lyric ("There's no man so wicked he cannot come home / Nor so good he passes each test")... followed by "Farther Stars," the psychedelic nine-minute closer built around a vaguely Himalayan "Tomorrow Never Knows" groove. Not many bands could pull this off and make it work - or even have the guts to try.

Exotic tinges aside, this is thoroughly American music - drawing from rock, folk, country and blues in equal measures, unfailingly clever, and often brutally honest. There are only a handful of artists capable of pulling off an album of this musical breadth with such grace and confidence, and with such consistently excellent songwriting. It may not be the stuff of Mount Rushmore, but it's still a mighty impressive piece of work.

Rating: A-

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© 2002 Jason Warburg 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.