Little Head

John Hiatt

Capitol Records, 1997

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/13/1997

People have been telling me for years that I should drink more red wine. They badger me about hanging back with the smoother Rieslings and white Zins. But they're up against one basic problem: I don't like the taste of red. My palate, you see, hasn't matured enough yet to appreciate the finer points of this woody, acidic, blood-colored swill.

I suspect a lot of people feel about John Hiatt roughly the way I feel about red wine.

Sure, the critics have generally been kind to him in recent years, and he's made friends out of a lot of bigger names who've scored hits covering his songs (it seems probable there's a large package under his tree every year from Bonnie "Thing Called Love" Raitt). But that reedy, raspy voice, that quirky sense of humor, the dizzying array of lyrical allusions, those frequent shifts in musical style... yes, Virginia, John Hiatt is an acquired taste. But anyone who fancies him or herself a connoisseur of smart, punchy, rootsy music can't earn the title without giving this guy a spin.

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Little Head is somewhat of an oddball album even for a guy who's gone through as many musical phases as singer-songwriter Hiatt. Neither as hard-rocking as 1993's Perfectly Good Guitar, nor as thoughtful as the highly-regarded Bring The Family (1987) or the recent country-folk tinged Walk On (1995), Little Head instead unfurls like one big inside joke.

First there's the title track, a barroom thumper featuring David Immergluck (master of all things stringed) on what could only be described as "bee-sting" guitar and Hiatt giving up three hilarious verses about the dominant organ the human male possesses - or rather, is possessed by. That he does it while managing to rhyme "Eddie Vedder" in context only adds to the festivities. He also has a grand time playing the blue-eyed R & B lounge crooner on "My Sweet Girl" and "After All This Time," capturing the smooth, smoky rhythm and seductive tone to perfection while holding tongue firmly in cheek. (You were expecting maybe upright bass? Immergluck plays sitar on the latter track.)

As always, though, the keys to the Hiatt kingdom are to be found at the intersection of his wit and his startling intelligence. "Graduated" sets the story of two lovers facing up to the fact they've grown apart to a blues groove that builds steadily to a sing-along climax that's celebratory and sad all at once. Faster and funnier, "Woman Sawed in Half" teases with a cheesy five-second Hammond organ riff before diving into a pulsating hook whose acceleration reflects the confusion of the title character, a woman with divided loyalties. The raucous "Sure Pinocchio"-my personal favorite-features a killer lead, fat Tower of Power horns and a lyric anyone who's ever gotten mixed up with a pathological liar (I speak from experience) can't help but smile at: "You took my heart / The check's in the mail / We'll do lunch / When you get outta jail / Sure Pinocchio / Anything you say..."

Hiatt rounds out the album with a couple of melancholy ruminations on departed lovers that don't match up to past tries at this sort of thing ("Runaway" and "Far As We Go") and a cut clearly designed to be The Single ("Pirate Radio") that's long on drive and melody but unfortunately short on the kind of original observations that make Hiatt something special.

Is this his best? No, for that try Walk On or Bring The Family. But hey, they say you should ease into red wines by starting at the lighter end of the spectrum. If that's the case, then Little Head makes for an entertaining first glass.

Rating: B

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© 1997 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 Capitol Records, and is used for informational purposes only.