John Hiatt, "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns" (New West Records)
A charming photo in the CD booklet for "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns" shows John Hiatt in profile wearing a toothy grin, and why not? On his 20th solo album, Hiatt remains at the top of his game.
There are no surprises left in his musical toolbox at this point, but that's OK because it's a big toolbox. Hiatt dresses up these 11 excellent songs with pedal steel, organ, piano, mandolin, accordion, a string orchestra and Doug Lancio's twangy guitar. While each arrangement is different, Hiatt's raspy two-pack-a-day tenor transforms every tune into a country blues.
The lyrics are concise but the topics ambitious when Hiatt sings about darkness as refuge, consolation in tribulation and apocalyptic visions. There's a car song, a train song and — here's a refreshing angle — a song about the joy of marriage.
A timely remembrance of 9-11 concludes the set. "When New York Had Her Heart Broke" opens with the drums setting a march tempo, and other instruments gradually join in, their diffuse contributions creating a ghostlike effect. But Hiatt's final words are firmly on the beat: "She will rise again."
CHECK THIS OUT: Guitars moan and an ill wind blows on the opening "Damn This Town," a lament from Dysfunction Junction. By the time Hiatt reaches the bridge he's seeking spiritual relief, and the song has become a mudslide hymn.