From Here to Obscurity
For someone who has been plugging away at his chosen craft for close to three decades it is short of criminal that John Hiatt has failed to receive due credit and attention his fine music richly deserves. This latest compilation of his diverse work is the fourth of its kind in the market but this well collected, sequenced, and annotated double package may mark it as the best effort so far to properly chronicle Hiatt’s finest recorded moments. Delivering 40 tracks covering 15 of Hiatt’s albums from his debut (1974’s Hangin’ Around the Observatory) to 2000’s all-acoustic Crossing Muddy Waters, Anthology may the closest thing fans and neophytes are going to get to a career-spanning retrospective box set in the circumstances.
You could probably divide Hiatt’s career into four distinct periods. The first involve his early albums with Epic that featured a sprightly straightforward folk-rock with elements of Dylan and the Rolling Stones prominent. Songs included from this era are “Sure As I’m Sitting Here”, “Down Home” and “Washable Ink”. With 1979’s Slug Line (both the album and the song), Hiatt moved to MCA Records and showcased a new wave slant which brought him in line with the angry, punk songwriters of the time viz. Elvis Costello and Graham Parker. Despite the excellence of tunes like “Slug Line”, “Pink Bedroom” and “It Hasn’t Happened Yet”, the album and follow-up Two Bit Monsters failed to sell and Hiatt was dropped by MCA. However, by the end of 1981, Hiatt had secured a deal with Geffen and would proceed to release three albums there. All of a Sudden, Riding with the King and Warming Up to the Ice Age highlighted Hiatt’s strong mix of distinctive lyrics with sophisticated pop savvy with songs like “Radio Girl”, “Doll Hospital”, “My Edge of the Razor”, “She Loves the Jerk” and “She Said the Same Thing to Me”.
However, by 1985, Hiatt’s was on a downward spiral into alcoholism. This was compounded by the suicide of his wife and the termination of his Geffen contract. A year later, Hiatt now cleaned up and re-married, signed up with A&M and delivered probably his strongest album, the rootsy Bring the Family backed by Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner. This well-received album would produce such great tracks like “Lipstick Sunset”, “Thank You Girl” and “Memphis in the Meantime” not mention give Hiatt his very first charting album. Slow Turning and Stolen Moments would soon follow in a similar musical vein (the third phase) with songs like “Drive South”, “Feels like Rain”, “Paper Thin” and “Real Fine Love”.
Quite unexpectedly, the 1990s would find Hiatt transforming from obscure performer to in-demand songwriter as the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Earl Thomas Conley, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Milsap, Suzy Bogguss and Iggy Pop all covered his songs. Hiatt’s curious response would be assemble the backing band from Bring the Family (i.e. Cooder, Lowe and Keltner) into a bona fide combo called Little Village. Despite high expectations the eponymous debut was a disappointment and parties concerned accepted the venture’s failure.
The rest of the 1990s would see Hiatt receiving back-up from younger musicians in Perfectly Good Guitar & Walk On with looser country rockers like “Perfectly Good Guitar”, “Angel Eyes”, “Cry Love” and “Shredding the Document”. By 2000, Hiatt’s cult status would lead him to Vanguard and the stripped down roots-inflected material of Crossing Muddy Waters like the title track and “Take It Down” (signaling his current stage).
Ardent fans may quibble with the lack of unreleased material or rarities but the unfamiliar will find Anthology to be an excellent starting point to explore the myriad joys of this talented singer-songwriter. In any case, it makes for two discs of great rock and pop listening.