John Hiatt & the Goners / John Hiatt

Beneath This Gruff Exterior

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While Beneath This Gruff Exterior is credited to John Hiatt & the Goners, a more appropriate designation might be "John Hiatt and Sonny Landreth" -- hotshot guitarist Landreth, who has held down a longtime on-and-off tenure in Hiatt's road band, spreads his licks over every nook and cranny of this album, so much so that his guitar spends about as much time in the spotlight as Mr. Hiatt himself. With the guitars turned up and Hiatt willing to push the growl of his voice to the limit, Beneath This Gruff Exterior finds Hiatt in stripped-down and rockin' form, much more so than on the albums which immediately preceded it. The production (by Don Smith with Hiatt and the band) is simple and straightforward, sounding loose and live, with Hiatt willing to let a few minor vocal glitches slip into the final mix. In short, this is a John Hiatt rock & roll album, which means his more serious songs are put on hold and stuff like "How Bad's the Coffee" and "Almost Fed Up With the Blues" find their way onto disc. But as has long been the case, Hiatt's lighter stuff still packs more emotional heft than most songwriters you could mention (especially on "Missing Pieces" and "The Most Unoriginal Sin"), and if his voice sounds as if it's starting to fray a tiny bit, he can still belt it out pretty convincingly for a guy who's been making records since 1974. The vast majority of Hiatt's albums fall into one of two categories -- brilliant and real good. Beneath This Gruff Exterior falls into the latter file, which means it isn't a revelation like Two Bit Monsters or Bring the Family, but it's got good songs sang by a great songwriter, and played by a rockin' little band with a real fine guitarist up front, and if that's not what you're looking for, you're probably not much on Hiatt anyway.

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