John Hiatt and the Goners

Beneath This Gruff Exterior (New West)

Various Artist

It'll Come to You: The Songs of John Hiatt (Vanguard)

A tribute album to a critically acclaimed songwriter these days seems inevitable, as is the fact that it would be packed with luminaries. But while John Hiatt's Southern folk-rock snapshots have been so widely covered as to nearly qualify as modern standards, It'll Come to You shows them to be too sharply focused for much maneuvering, even among such champion interpreters as Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. For one thing, such golden throats are no more expressive than Hiatt's own one-of-a-kind sandpaper. And among the 13 tracks here (10 of which were previously recorded and released), few tweak the originals. Bonnie Raitt's "Thing Called Love" adds sass, while Eric Clapton and B.B. King turn "Riding With the King" into a gusty spectacle compared to the cranky original.

A label less tied to American roots music than Vanguard might deliver a more colorful overview of among the only pop-folkies to be covered by the likes of Paula Abdul and Iggy Pop. As it is, It'll Come to You is an eminently listenable, if unnecessary, A-list hootenanny.

Of course, the loving tributes can't compete with the man's own output. Hiatt classics like 1987's Bring the Family and its immediate successor Slow Turning are now joined in the winners' circle by Beneath This Gruff Exterior, Hiatt's 16th album. While the former two albums chronicle fatherhood and domesticity with actual grit, the latest goes one better, offering a youthful-sounding homage to his late middle age. Who would have thought that songs about turning gracefully into a cantankerous coot could be as spicy as "How Bad's the Coffee" (sample: "One eye doubles my eyesight, so things don't look half-bad/Be twice as good, honey if I could/Even make you a little bit mad") or as romantic as "My Dog and Me"?

Beneath This Gruff Exterior isn't as liberal with hooks as the Velcro-coated nuggets covered on It'll Come to You, nor does it add to Hiatt's sonic repertoire, sticking to breezy acoustic lope and folk-artsy blues riffery. But the album's dozen juicy cogitations add up to one of the strongest statements of a premier songwriter -- and of an artist who paints his own thoughts more indelibly than the greatest interpreters of our time.

 
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