I realised today that I now own twenty John Hiatt CDs. Some I love, most I really like. I'm not a fan of John when he goes loud, so I didn't care much for 'Perfectly Good Guitar', and 'Beneath This Gruff Exterior' left me frozen cold. I expected this to be more my 'thing' musically, and on paper it is. But in practice, it just isn't.
You know I listened half with horror and half with bemusement: I didn't know what this record was trying to be, but it sure didn't sound like it was succeeding.
The title track is okay but very, very familiar ground - just less well done than usual. No edge. Bad vocals (more on that later). Hmm. 'Howlin' down the Cumberland' is a bizarre little ditty with a repetitive military drum beat. John puts nothing into the vocal or the arrangement. It's a dead song. 'Wintertime Blues' sounds like something The Lovin' Spoonful might have done in the seventies. This sounds really dated and uncomfortable with a melody that might have worked if the singer could have pulled off the vocal, but even then...
Well, I'm not going to go through every track, but they almost all have two things in common: poor vocals and dull arrangements.
As for vocals, John either sounds like he has a sore throat, or like he's singing down the phone. 'Ain't Ever Going Back' might've been good, but John sounds like JR Ewing singing in the bath. I get the impression that his voice is really tight and he's having to do strange things with it to get the notes out. It isn't nice to listen to. It's a shame.
The most surprising thing though about this album is just how dull the arrangements are, how ordinary the backings sound, how un-Hiatt the whole thing is.
UNTIL... we get to 'Find You At Last' which is pretty much up to scratch: vocally just about there, some interesting guitar, good groove. Yeah. I can go for this. And John wraps things up with the simply delightful 'Back on the Corner', a simple, acoustic blues song that he underplays and underplays beautifully. It makes you realise what's missing elsewhere. This song is funny, clever, beguiling, seductive... everything it should be. But it's out of place on this album where even the best of the rest are barely good enough to be the fillers on his other albums.
And to add insult to injury, I was far from impressed by the sound quality. It's certainly better than 'Gruff Exterior' in this respect (what isn't?) but much has been made of the DSD recording quality - I expected to be blown away. Granted I don't have an SACD player. Maybe playing on an 'ordinary' CD player compromises the sound more than usual. But to me, the soundstage was narrow and even the dynamic range seemed constricted. It certainly sounds different, and very detailed, but not in a good way.
Out of my twenty Hiatt CDs, I'm probably going to have to say this is just about at the bottom for me. I never expected that.