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John Hiatt: The Eclipse Sessions

Doug Collette By

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Since John Hiatt hit his artistic and commercial stride with Bring The Family (A&M, 1987), the most listenable and durable albums of his have been those recorded with a band like the one appearing there (eventually known as Little Village: Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner). Offering comparably uniform musicianship in proportionate support of this highly-regarded songwriter's most memorable material, the Goners (featuring guitarist extraordinaire Sonny Landreth) appeared on Slow Turning (A&M, 1988) as well as The Tiki Bar Is Open (Vanguard, 2001) and Beneath This Gruff Exterior (New West, 2003). Following in their collective and no less sympathetic footsteps, the North Mississippi Allstars united with Hiatt on Master of Disaster (New West, 2005) with the Combo coalesced in accompaniment to him on The Open Road (New West, 2010).

Hiatt's twenty-third studio effort, The Eclipse Sessions, was produced by Kevin McKendree and, as reflected in the simplicity of its cover design, it benefits from the sparse accompaniment and musicianly continuity of those aforementioned records. At the same time, it introduces new guitarist Yates McKendree in place of Doug Lancio, the fretboard wizard at John's side for the last few years: like his father a recent collaborator with Delbert McClinton, the precocious musician's playing reflects the eclectic roots at the heart of songs like "Cry to Me," a mix of blues, folk and country within which Hiatt touches upon some topical themes: it's an understated departure from this author's usual introspection and dramatic narratives where the easygoing gait of the ensemble suits the open attitude in the author's vocal.

Producer McKendree supplies the steady current of organ on that track as well as the piano bouncing through "All The Way to the River," while his wunderkind offspring's fretboard fills ride a forward motion that's implied in the title. Clearly enjoying the metaphorical ride of the song and the performance, Hiatt's burnished voice rises and falls in time, yet with the same restraint he applies to the near-solo track "Aces Up Your Sleeve." Contemplative as is that composition, it benefits from juxtaposition with "Poor Imitation of God," the the tongue-in-cheek likes of which Hiatt mastered long ago: its off-the-cuff nature is a sharp contrast to the penetrating poetry at the heart of "Nothing in My Heart."

There's an uncommonly unforgiving tone to that tune, but then the evolution of Hiatt's artistry has revolved around his growing ability to play roles and adopt particular personae for his original material (likewise the fundamental conceit within "Hide Your Tears"). The sparkling sound of The Eclipse Sessions, recorded in Nashville, mirrors such clarity of purpose when the artist posits such a sensitive point of view as "Over The Hill;" in a further demonstration of the mutual simpatico, the performance of the musicians reinforces John's forthright approach in writing and singing the song.

"Outrunning My Soul" approaches the pure craft John Hiatt learned learned in his days at a Music City music publishing company prior to his recording debut in 1974, but the jovial piano break is an extension of the wide-eyed posture he expresses as he sings. His vocals are as essential a component of these arrangements as any of the instruments, a virtue on display as well during "The Odds of Loving You," where his sly, sultry phrasing echoes the accompanying acoustic slide guitar of the younger McKendree.

Like its noisy and nonchalant counterpart, "One Stiff Breeze," that tune belies the writer's block John Hiatt describes with scathing honesty and self-awareness on "Robber's Highway," a state of creative stasis he he transcends throughout The Eclipse Sessions with a stylish combination of grace and aplomb.

Track Listing: Cry To Me; All The Way To The River; Aces Up Your Sleeve; Poor Imitation Of God; Nothing In My Heart; Over The Hill; Outrunning My Soul; Hide Your Tears; The Odds Of Loving You; One Stiff Breeze; Robber’s Highway.

Personnel: John Hiatt: vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, baritone guitar; Yates McKendree: electric guitar, slide acoustic guitar; Kevin McKendree: guitar, electric piano, piano, organ; Patrick O’Hearn: bass; Kenneth Blevins: drums.

Title: The Eclipse Sessions | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: New West Records

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