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Monday, Aug. 8, 2011

John Hiatt

Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns (New West Records)

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It might take until the very last song—a maudlin, pedestrian pass at a 9/11 elegy that only maybe would have held water in the tragedy's immediate aftermath—to see just what's askew with John Hiatt's latest effort. But throughout there are signposts that the singer simply isn't holding the project to his usual songwriting standards.

Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns
is rife with dumbed-down song titles (“Don't Wanna Leave You Now”) and simplistic refrains (“I love that girl” sung four times on the chorus to, yes, “I Love That Girl”), and there's nothing much to distinguish it from the unstoppable stream of tunes coming out of Nashville. There are even some cheesy strings on the movie-of-the-week ready “Don't Wanna Leave You Now.”

This is far from 2010's wondrous The Open Road, a dusty, low-key effort that rocked and cooed with equal ease. What made that album so special, aside from Hiatt's trademark ability to throat one-liners and wax nostalgic with humor and grace, is his old-school country ability to contrast the road and home and tell the toll each takes on the other.

On Dirty Jeans this can be felt in parts. “Train to Birmingham” and “Adios to California” chug along nicely with grimy nostalgia and an open-highway “feel of going home.” But the ride is generally bumpy and uneven, and too-often approaches the hokey, halfhearted Neil Young country tunes that fill out his lesser albums. Much like Shakey himself, Hiatt reminds that even the best offer middling efforts.
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