Over the course of some 27 years and 22 albums, John Hiatt's smart, quirky songwriting has established him as the poster boy for smart people who do stupid things. Sometimes his songs offer a wry smile and an indulgent chuckle, implying hard-won knowledge; at others times, he almost seems proud of his shortcomings. In fact, one can usually judge his albums by how much they lean to one camp or the other -- his best, such as 1987's Bring the Family, lie firmly in the former; his least interesting (1997's Little Head), stand in the latter.
The Tiki Bar is Open ranks among his best, partially because of Hiatt's clear-eyed songwriting, which is finally showing some signs of incipient adulthood -- surely a hard transition for a lifelong bad boy -- but also because of the return of Hiatt's one-time touring band, the Goners, a rock ensemble that can play toe-to-toe with any band currently touring.
The Goners, Sonny Landreth (guitars), Ken Blevins (drums), and David Ranson (bass), with "honor Goner" producer Jay Joyce joining in on guitar, can play it all -- from the swirling swamp rock of "All the Lilacs in Ohio" to the delicate plucked arpeggios of "I'll Never Get Over You."
Indeed, after years of touring behind Hiatt, the Goners now come across as his true voice -- Sonny Landreth's wailing slide-guitar runs echo Hiatt's vocals, filling in its crags and fissures with sweet-toned honey. Hiatt has played with slide gods Ry Cooder and David Lindley on previous albums, but Landreth cedes nothing to either when it comes to style or technique -- or taste, for that matter. Every lick here is in service to the song.
And the songs are strong. Even that august gray lady The New York Times recently quoted the title song, "Thank God the Tiki Bar is open/Thank God the Tiki torch still shines," as emblematic of New York's need for frivolity in the wake of the WTC catastrophe. But for all his love for the fake squalor of the Tiki bar, there's one part of it that Hiatt's not celebrating: "I know drinking's no solution/I haven't had one in 17 years/But if that Tiki bar was closed tonight/I might just disappear."
"My Old Friend" catches Hiatt in a reflective mood. The song opens with a sly dig at his past failings -- "I thought we were gonna make that bridge, but what do I know?/ Me and my expectations was always high." Later, the song veers from photographic flashes of memory ("A car with no floorboards/A Gibson Hummingbird &...") to the rueful confession, "You got kids/I got kids/They all want to know/Just what it was like back when we were young/ I tell 'em I'm no different/Than I was back then -- just late for the show."
In "Hangin' Round Here," Hiatt sings about the pleasures of a mature, seasoned love. "To go back to love's first blush/Oh my lordy, that would be a big rush/But I know you can't go back -- you got to keep moving, that's a natural fact/So here we are still in love/I swear to you, honey, from the stars above/It's an old man's dreams that a young man fears."
What a world of wisdom packed into a single line! "It's an old man's dreams that a young man fears." As long as Hiatt can produce a single line that good, I'll be there listening to him. On The Tiki Bar is Open, he's given us eleven songs full of them. That's an embarrassment of riches -- but greedy soul that I am, I can't wait for more. John Hiatt's back and he's better than ever.
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