Since John Hiatt and the major labels decided to go their separate ways around the turn of the century, his approach to record making has been direct and organic; most of his albums have sounded as if Hiatt and his sidemen put them together without a lot of fuss, placing the emphasis squarely on Hiatt's dependably strong material and tough, flinty vocal style. But 2011's Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns is a more polished and ambitious affair than Hiatt has delivered in years. The sessions were produced by Kevin Shirley, who has previously worked with Aerosmith, the Black Crowes, Dream Theater, and Journey, and though his approach isn't especially intrusive, the sound of this record is certainly more luxurious, with the guitars sounding bigger, the drums booming a bit louder, and strings and keyboards decorating several tracks and the arrangements, gaining a greater sense of drama along the way. The latter is fitting, since the songs on Dirty Jeans have a more melodramatic tone than most of Hiatt's recent work, particularly "Damn This Town"'s tale of a shattered family, the romantic lament of "Don't Want to Leave You Now," "Down Around My Place"'s elegy to a world gone to seed, and Hiatt's belated meditation on 9/11, "When New York Had Her Heart Broke." While Hiatt's accompanists play in a strong, confident manner (especially guitarist Doug Lancio, drummer Kenneth Blevins, and Russ Pahl on pedal steel), Shirley's production tries to build atmosphere and dramatic tension out of echo and reverb, and sometimes his artful approach is a bit much, particularly since most of these numbers would certainly sound powerful with a more Spartan approach. But this delivers another 11 songs from one of America's best working tunesmiths, no small thing, and it shows Hiatt's craft is still potent, while his singing hasn't been this effective in years. In many respects, Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns shows that John Hiatt is well served by a more hands-on production, though one might also imagine Kevin Shirley isn't necessarily the best person to do the job.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming