There's really no precedent for John Hiatt. Try naming another figure in the annals of rock who developed into a more confident, focused and satisfying artist in his 40s than he had been in his 20s or 30s. Little Head is the latest in a series of releases over the last nine years that sounds as effortless and natural as Hiatt's early work sounded forced and mannered.
Though his career actually predates the British New Wave era, by the time Hiatt started to get noticed by critics, he was widely derided as a bargain-basement, American Costello--too crabby for the masses, but not angry enough to be hip.
But with 1987's landmark Bring the Family, Hiatt hit his stride and he's never lost it, despite a mild, slightly awkward flirtation with grunge four years ago with Perfectly Good Guitar. At an age when most rockers have shot their creative wad, Hiatt seems excited still to be in the game.
Little Head offers multiple reminders why the guy has become this decade's patron saint of roots rock, and a frequent source of material in Nashville.
The frisky kick of rave-ups like "Feelin' Again" and "Pirate Radio" makes Hiatt sound sorta contemporary, yet the grooves and the sentiments are nothing if not traditional. Even when he searches for a pirate radio station, you sense he's just hoping for a chance to hear all his favorite old R&B singers.
In fact, Hiatt's most pervasive trademark is his good-natured use of pop icons for metaphoric material. In "Pirate Radio," he's a "Marvin Gaye looking for his Tammi Terrell."
On the sarcastic "Sure Pinocchio," Hiatt distinguishes himself as the first songwriter to rhyme "uncle" with "Artie Garfunkel." Elsewhere, he claims to be "feeling like Eddie Vedder" (whatever that actually means).
If anything, Hiatt's easygoing confections come too easily. In the old days, he could occasionally summon a stunningly original melody like "Love Gets Strange." By comparison, his ready-made, rootsy tunes on Little Head seem to write themselves--or, in the case of "Sure Pinocchio," appropriate "Werewolves of London."
Still, even on cruise control, Hiatt is almost impossible to dislike. He's eternally the charming scoundrel who loves to mock his own foolishness.
As he confesses on the slinky title tune, "I'm just so easily led when the little head does the thinking." At least Hiatt admits it, and he's a better man for it.
If there is such a thing as a postmodern sensibility in rock, it could best be defined as an eagerness to celebrate all the cliches and excesses of pop's past, while fully understanding just how ludicrous these excesses are.
Beck, in particular, has artfully managed to meld the sublime with the ridiculous and make them sound like they're all part of the same thing.
But no '90s artist has been more relentlessly postmodern than Ween, a duo that stormed out of Pennsylvania like They Might Be Giants' stoned cousins and proceeded to dismantle any lingering notions that pop had to be sincere or heartfelt to be effective.
The Mollusk represents a return to form of sorts for these guys, whose last effort, 12 Golden Country Greats, was neither funny enough nor authentic enough to cause more than a blip on anybody's screen. By dedicating a concept album to a crustacean, Ween implicitly reminds you how absurd most concept albums have been (a deaf, dumb and blind boy who plays pinball?). Yet it's obvious that Ween loves the form.
Dean and Gene pull out the usual tricks here--vocals that are radically sped up or slowed down, oddball sound bites--and it doesn't always work. The soft-shoe shuffle "I'm Dancing in the Show Tonight" wears about as thin as any song can in under two minutes. But the sea chanteys ("The Blarney Stone," "Cold Blows the Wind") are more beautiful than they have any right to be, and "Ocean Man" is the kind of chiming pop perfection that Ween's smart-ass tendencies usually tend to suffocate.
In the late '70s, Arto Lindsay responded to punk and made himself the king of skronk, the flailing guitar-noise form that typified NYC no-wave, laying the groundwork for Sonic Youth and its nations of imitators.
Now, after exploring his Brazilian roots with his art-pop fusion group Ambitious Lovers and collaborating with various art-minded Brazilian pop stars (notably on two gorgeous early-'90s albums by Brazilian song-poet Caetano Veloso, Estrangeiro and Circulado), he reasserts himself as a very different kind of king; the king of the lower Manhattan bossa nova singers.
Think of him as Antonio Carlos Jobim meets Freedy Johnston, sort of. Mundo Civilizado presents him as one of the world's brainiest (along with Veloso) bossa nova singers, an intoner of soft ballads with vaguely autobiographical images of smart, middle-aged people thinking about sex, and now and again even getting some.
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The mild samba beats that typified last year's The Subtle Body get blurred here with drum 'n' bass and dub-hob effects. It makes sense: Two decades down the road from no-wave, NYC skronk guitar is replaced with NYC skronk-electronica (stop-action samples, hide-and-seek drum loops and "textures" by the omniscient DJ Spooky and DJ Mutamassik. Yet it's the defects, not the effects, that make Mundo Civilizado great.
Your average bossa nova singer is unlikely to step outside characters enough to admit that "in all its innocence my samba/May be hiding some malice within."
In Arto's case, his samba better be, because his totally limited voice is at best only passably pretty while rendering Al Green's "Simply Beautiful." Yet when his conversational sing-read bumps up against Spooky's sequencer gravel on the title track, or turns Prince's deflowering come-on "Erotic City" into something coolly--maybe even coldly--diplomatic, Arto's careerlong ability to misplace himself seamlessly within disconsolate styles becomes friendlier, and ever more pleasurable, than any NYC coolness I've ever come across.