John Hiatt
The Best Of John Hiatt
(Capitol Records)

Few singer-songwriters exude the piss and vinegar of John Hiatt -- not to mention a dastardly wit and hearty guffaw. Since the Seventies, while under contract to numerous record labels, this Music City-based songsmith has written and sung about oddball themes and quirky scenarios that would baffle even Elmore Leonard. For instance: stealing Elvis's Cadillacs from Graceland, rockers who smash their "perfectly good" guitars, shooting up Barbie dolls, and generally soapboxing about everything from hotel-bathroom telephones to Pearl Jam vocalist Eddie Vedder. Along the way he's also scribed some of rock's most poignant love songs, dealing with issues such as family, sobriety, loneliness, and redemption. Hiatt's songs have been covered by everyone from Paula Abdul to Dave Edmunds, Bob Dylan to Iggy Pop, and Joe Cocker to Buddy Guy.

Hiatt's Best Of scratches the surface of his unique and often dichotomous acumen. Throughout, his lyrics waver between raw emotion and Hiatt's indisputable sense of humor. Like most "best of" compilations, the title is bit of a misnomer -- some songs are absent ("Real Fine Love," "Lipstick Sunset," "Stood Up"), while a new re-recording of his anthemic "Have A Little Faith In Me" is smeared with a slick production courtesy of Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette, Wilson Philips), and replete with gospel choir and drum machine, which leaves the track sounding as if Babyface had snuck into the studio and sabotaged the session. Luckily the rest of the disc amply makes up for that blunder -- the slow-burning "Memphis In The Meantime," the rollicking "Child Of The Wild Blue Yonder," the romantic "Feels Like Rain." These and a majority of the album's tracks are culled from his brilliant, so-called "trilogy" of discs Bring The Family (1987), Slow Turning (1989), and Stolen Moments (1990), which were recorded for A&M Records while Hiatt was still recovering from the effects of various personal demons (alcoholism and the suicide of his second wife). Though two new songs are hit ("Don't Know Much About Love") and miss ("Love In Flames"), even the minor missteps on The Best of John Hiatt constitute a considerable benchmark for songwriters everywhere.

-- George Pelletier

Tomorrow Hit Today

Mudhoney may be the last band in the world who still use the term grunge to categorize themselves. When the Seattle-based group formed ten years ago, it had an us vs. them mentality that still seems fitting, as the band has never achieved the success of its peers -- Nirvana, Soundgarden, or Pearl Jam. Perhaps that is due, at least in part, to the fact that Mudhoney has never embraced the stylistic changes those bands underwent. With Mudhoney it's pretty easy to know what to expect -- sludge guitars and hoarse yelling/singing. And that's the disappointing part. Other than that, very little actually changes. You get the feeling that twenty years from now, when the grunge revival hits, Mudhoney won't have to reunite. They'll still be together.

Thankfully, the band's songwriting has gotten a bit more tuneful, even as its members have ungracefully aged. Still, it's hard to tell whether they are showing their lack of ambition by not varying their sound, or whether they have consciously chosen to carry on until they have refined the grunge anthem to perfection. Mudhoney attempt to re-create the power of their trademark song, "Touch Me I'm Sick" (from their 1988 Sub Pop records debut Superfuzz Bigmuff) on the new album's "Poisoned Water." During this song, singer/guitarist Mark Arm screams about revenge while his and Steve Turner's guitars slug it out and drummer Matt Lunkin pounds an angry drum roll on his snare. But it is the wandering, snaky guitars on "Oblivion" that prove when Mudhoney's members play slowly they can be just as crude and heavy as they are on their mostly uptempo material. "Oblivion" uses dynamics beyond the usual dirty/dirtier guitars, with the bass and drums holding the song together and building tension as Lunkin switches between a tribal beat on his tom toms and cymbal during the verses and enthused snare-smacking on the chorus. A space is made for the guitars to kick in, but they never have to play more than the occasional chord and a few single-note runs before climbing to a wah-wah solo at the end. It's a nice change of pace from the band's usual blunt attack.

Other small alterations arrive courtesy of Memphis legend and producer Jim Dickinson (Alex Chilton, the Replacements), who produced and also played organ on the record. Dickinson's best addition is the Southern vibe he brings to the proceedings. Mudhoney's 1994 one-off EP collaboration with Jimmie Dale Gilmore proved the band can encompass country-punk without straying too far away from the "G" word, but on Tomorrow it's more of a Southern rock, Black Crowes/Lynyrd Skynryd ambiance. As always, Mudhoney's musical chops are more ham-fisted than fluent and the country-picked slide guitars of "Try to be Kind," with Arm wailing in a country-blues vein, easily fit within the Mudhoney oeuvre -- a nicotine-laced cheekful of honky-tonk rolled in the dirt. Unfortunately, all these little variations on a theme can't save Tomorrow Came Today from being just another grunge album arriving a few years too late.

-- David Simutis

Archers of Loaf
White Trash Heroes

The salient point of Archers of Loaf is their refusal to sign with a major label. From this resistance to the cigar-chomping big leagues flow all the rest of the Chapel Hill quartet's notable particularities: the preposterous band name; the deeply dedicated following; the rousing, hook-laden songs that are as good as anyone's, but more stylized than almost everyone's.

This fourth full-length finds the Archers making predictable moves into synthesized rhythms, spacious instrumentals, and down-tempo, meandering compositions not unlike the kind settled into by the likes of Pavement and Superchunk. Singer Eric Bachman experiments with voicings so different from his characteristic froggy baritone that you won't recognize him on songs such as "Dead Red Eyes" and "I.N.S." Unfortunately, Bachman's recognizability is among his best features. And his very best one, a knack for catchy, yet unique pop melodies, doesn't assert itself on those tracks either.

The spiderlike creeping tune "Slick Tricks and Bright Lights" is more compatible with the band's strengths and the heroic coda of "After the Last" (it actually sounds like a Christmas carol) further advances the notion that this band's best hope of maturing musically is to play the same as they always have, only slower. But that harsh reality has little to do with the ultra-insular, ultra-earnest, ultra-late-phase indie rock scene in which Archers of Loaf exist. Their inability to break out of it is part of the band's charm. Check the vocal-free "Smokers in Love Laugh," a perfectly executed tour of all the genre's most well-worn chord progressions and inter-instrument dynamics, but with a title that shouts "experimental."

White Trash Heroes concludes with its title track, a seven-and-a-half-minute buildup from a poignant keyboard bass riff to a majestically orchestrated refrain that concludes like a summer storm. Arty yet completely lacking artifice, it's a sweepingly ambitious pop song. This is what Bruce Springsteen would still sound like had he never left the Boardwalk. (Alias, 2815 W. Olive Ave., Burbank, CA, 91905.)

-- Adam Heimlich

Henry Rollins
Think Tank

It's a tad weird to think of Henry Rollins as a one-man entertainment empire with a diverse recording career, movie cameos, product endorsements, and a Grammy under his belt (for his last spoken-word disc, Get in the Van). No matter how accepted and awarded he becomes, Rollins still looks like an uncomfortable misfit, his eyebrows burrowing low and intense as if he's not sure where he parked the van.

At this point, of course, he owns the goddamn parking garage. So when, on his new live two-disc spoken word CD Think Tank, he rattles off a few well-directed and obvious barbs at the TV show "Friends" during "Television," the effect isn't quite as powerful as intended. Rollins repeatedly disclaims that he only watches TV during lonely nights in hotel rooms, but he's awfully well-versed. Besides, he's preaching to a converted audience at the House of Blues on his birthday who can only whoop and clap in easy agreement. Rollins's early work was commanding in how it confronted his audience's preconceptions. He grew his hair and slowed the sound down just as punks drew the line between themselves and heavy metal.

Here, Rollins is a comfortable stand-up comedian, letting out enough obscenities to make Lenny Bruce proud and enough humorous anecdotes about daily life to make Jerry Seinfeld nod in knowing conspiracy. Not a bad deal, but a tad weird, wouldn't you say?

-- Rob O'Connor

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