Friday, March 15, 2024

The View On Pop Culture: John Hiatt, Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello (2003)

John Hiatt’s Beneath This Gruff Exterior

Next year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees were recently announced, the list including the late George Harrison, Bob Seger, and Prince, among others. The foundation that nominates inductees has consistently overlooked many credible “hall of famers,” especially in the genres of punk (no Sex Pistols), heavy metal (no Black Sabbath) and R&B artists (too many to mention). Of course, not every performing musician can, or should be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but too many excellent artists/bands have been overlooked to believe that the process has any intelligence behind it at all.    

As a recording artist, John Hiatt has never achieved much more than cult status. He has never sold a lot of records; certainly not as many as other artists have recording Hiatt’s songs. Over the course of almost thirty years, however, Hiatt has forged a career of quiet excellence, creating nearly twenty consistently solid albums and writing hundreds of remarkable songs that lesser talents will be recording for decades to come. Entering his fourth decade of writing and performing, Hiatt epitomizes the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, and if he never makes the Hall of Fame, it will be that institution’s loss.

Hiatt’s Beneath This Gruff Exterior (New West Records) is another fine effort on the part of the underrated songwriter and his top-notch band the Goners. For those unfamiliar with Hiatt’s creative “modus operandi,” he pens literate songs that are peopled with brilliant characters – losers and lovers, the lost and the redeemed. Hiatt’s rough, soulful vocals are kind of like a frayed blanket, scratchy and worn but warm and familiar. The music is a mix of roots-rock, Memphis soul, Delta blues, country and folk, which is why Hiatt’s material lends itself so well to various interpretations. Beneath This Gruff Exterior showcases both Hiatt’s songwriting skills and the road-worn chemistry of the Goners. Hiatt is not a bad guitarist, but he smartly steps aside and lets maestro Sonny Landreth fill his songs with whiplash slide work and a hint of bayou swamp-rock instrumental gumbo. The seasoned rhythm section of bassist Dave Ranson and drummer Kenneth Bevins keep an admirable beat beneath the festivities so that the magician Hiatt can weave his lyrical tales.

The radio-ready "The Nagging Dark” rolls along like the runaway hearts of the song’s characters while “Circle Back” remembers the fleeting nature of friendships and family and the passage of time. “Almost Fed Up With the Blues,” fueled by Landreth’s red-hot picking, is a brilliant anti-blues blues song, the protagonist sick and tired of being sick and tired. Hiatt’s imagery on “The Most Unoriginal Sin” is nearly the equal of vintage Dylan, Landreth’s shimmering fretwork creating an eerie atmosphere behind Hiatt’s somber vocals, the song’s star-crossed lover doomed before the first chorus strikes. Beneath This Gruff Exterior may not be the hall-of-fame caliber talent’s best album, but it doesn’t fall far from the top.

Pearl Jam's Lost Dogs
As one of the two most important rock bands to come out of the early ‘90s Seattle scene, Pearl Jam are pretty much ensured a spot in the hallowed hall. With the band’s multi-million selling 1991 debut Ten, Pearl Jam created a blueprint for much of the rest of rock ‘n’ roll to follow during the decade, spawning dozens of sound-alike bands. During the ‘90s, though, Pearl Jam deliberately turned its back on stardom, eschewing the trappings of celebrity in favor of making honest and, at times, difficult music that will take critics years to digest. With literally over a hundred live performance discs released, it’s hard to believe that Pearl Jam built its legacy on the strength of a mere seven studio albums.

Lost Dogs (Epic Records) is a two-CD collection of rare tracks, obscurities and B-sides compiled by the band. Presenting only a portion of the wealth of unreleased/barely-released material allegedly recorded by the band, Lost Dogs is nevertheless a nice bookend to Pearl Jam’s major label years. The thirty songs here include a couple of legitimate hits, including “Last Kiss;” a handful of the band’s live staples, like “Yellow Ledbetter;” and some great undiscovered songs like “Hitchhiker” and “All Night.” Hardcore fans probably have a lot of the songs here, but it’s nice to have it in one two-disc set with song-by-song liner notes by the band members. Pearl Jam’s importance and influence on rock ‘n’ roll has yet to be truly measured, and as the band begins a new era among the ranks of the indie label world, who knows what great music they’ll create in years to come?                  
Elvis Costello's Get Happy
Inducted into the Hall of Fame last year along with his backing band the Attractions, singer/songwriter Elvis Costello may well receive a second induction in the future as a solo artist. Rhino Records has done an excellent job reissuing Costello’s entire recorded oeuvre as low-priced, double-disc sets overflowing with bonus material and extensive liner notes by the artist. It’s been a veritable bonanza for Costello fanatics, no single album so much as the recently reissued Get Happy!! No small creative achievement when it was originally released as a 20-track vinyl album in 1980, Costello’s overlooked fourth album recasts the angry young punk as a blue-eyed soul crooner.

Get Happy!! ventures into Motown-styled pop, Stax-flavored R&B and classic Northern soul all delivered with punkish intensity by the world’s best rock band. It’s a magnificent collection, with highlights like “New Amsterdam,” “High Fidelity,” and “Riot Act” standing tall among a strong collection of songs. The “bonus disc” offers an astonishing thirty more tracks, highlighting both Costello’s prolific late ‘70s songwriting and the Attractions’ unflagging devotion to the material. No mere rehashing of unnecessary crap, the second disc provides valuable insight into Costello’s work with wonderful alternative takes, live tracks and early versions of songs that would appear on later albums. If you stopped listening to Elvis Costello with 1979’s Armed Forces, you owe it to yourself to discover Get Happy!!

Costello’s 1981 album Trust (Rhino) proved to be somewhat of a departure for the artist. The album benefited from the immense workload taken on by Costello and the Attractions during the previous four years: four full-length albums, numerous tours and over 100 recorded songs shaped the composer and his mates into tight musical machine. As such, they tackle various styles and musical experiments with confidence and gusto. The beginning, perhaps, of Costello’s turn towards more “serious,” adult-styled music, Trust holds several gems, from the raucous “From A Whisper To A Scream” to the manic pop of “White Knuckles” to the charming “Pretty Words.” The bonus disc includes 17 songs and, while none are as revelatory as the material included with Get Happy!!, there are some nice moments, such as “Black Sails In the Sunset” and “Sad About Girls.” Considered by Costello connoisseurs as the artist’s last great album with the Attractions, Trust is well worth checking out. (View From The Hill, 2003) 

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