You, me, the music, and me.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

JOHN HIATT Bring the Family

A&M SP 5158 (1987)

Even if you've never heard of John Hiatt, you've probably heard at least a few of his songs. He's a gifted, prolific songwriter whose tunes have been covered by Bonnie Raitt, Three Dog Night, Bill Frisell, Mandy Moore, Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, and Conway Twitty, among others. He's also an entertaining singer and performer who, after being mismarketed as an angry young Elvis Costello/Graham Parker-type rocker during the seventies, enjoyed a career rejuvenation in the eighties and nineties as an affable, Springsteen-esque roots-rocker.

Bring the Family was a true comeback for Hiatt, both commercially and artistically; critics took notice of its stripped-down, live-in-the-studio intimacy, and it became the record that would finally put Hiatt on the map in terms of sales and recognition. The album's production (by John Chelew) has a warm, muted feel which may have seemed out of place in the eighties but has allowed the record to age gracefully. The playing is superb; studio ace Jim Keltner provides supple, imaginative drumming throughout, joined by Nick Lowe on bass and Ry Cooder on lead guitar (this group would record another album in 1992 under the name Little Village).

Hiatt's personal life was on the upswing (he had finally become clean and sober after battling alcoholism for years and had remarried and had a daughter) and it shows in his songwriting; there isn't a bad tune on the album. The album moves smoothly from the percolating grooves of "Memphis in the Meantime" and "Your Dad Did" to country ballads like "Lipstick Sunset" and "Tip of My Tongue" to flat-out rockers like "Thank You Girl". "Thing Called Love" (later a hit for Bonnie Raitt) features some funky guitar interplay between Hiatt and Cooder, and "Have a Little Faith in Me" is Hiatt alone at the piano at his most soulful and vulnerable.

Hiatt went on to record many more well-received albums, but he never made one as perfect as Bring the Family. It's that rare album that presents a complete picture of an artist at a certain point in his life, and, nearly twenty years later, it remains John Hiatt's definitive self-portrait.


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