John Hiatt's talents as a singer and songwriter have never been a matter of question, but for the longest time neither Hiatt nor his various record labels seemed to know what to do with him. Epic Records thought he was some sort of a folky, while MCA figured, since his songs were often cranky and angular, he could be sold as a skinny-tie new wave guy. Neither idea made much of a dent in the marketplace, and by the time Hiatt cut his second album for Geffen, Riding with the King, someone had come to the reasonable conclusion that Hiatt was a roots-rocker at heart -- but what kind of roots-rocker? Side one of Riding with the King was produced by Ron Nagel and Scott Mathews of the Durocs, with Hiatt singing and playing guitar and Mathews handling everything else; the results have a thick, glossy retro-pop sound with a vague '50s undercurrent, complete with twinkly keyboards and honking saxophones. Side two was cut with Nick Lowe at the controls, featuring a band assembled from Lowe's touring unit (which at one time included Hiatt); these tunes are leaner and blusier, but also a bit more laid-back. While the two halves of the album have decidedly different sonic personalities, the consistent strength of Hiatt's witty, sweet-and-sour songwriting holds the album together, balancing punchy rockers like "Say It with Flowers" and "Falling Up" against soulful contemplations of the ups and downs of love, such as "She Loves the Jerk" and "You May Already Be a Winner." And while Hiatt's voice doesn't boast much range, he knows how to make the most of what he's got, and his vocals here sound a lot more subtle and incisive than the albums that preceded it. Riding with the King may be a bit mixed-up, but it was certainly a step in the right direction for Hiatt.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming