Royal Blue

Lilly Hiatt

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Royal Blue Review

by Mark Deming

Not a lot of artists would claim both Lucinda Williams and Dinosaur Jr. as influences, but on her second album, 2015's Royal Blue, Lilly Hiatt genuinely sounds like someone who has both of those artists in regular rotation, even if she bears little direct resemblance to either. It's a lot easier to hear how Williams fits into Hiatt's formula, since they're both women who write songs with an introspective streak, a big portion of emotional honesty, and a decided country accent. Williams seems to be more of a kindred spirit, however, than a direct influence on Royal Blue, as Hiatt's lyrical approach is noticeably more measured, though no less incisive, and she has a wit and keen intelligence that's all her own (the title alone makes "Jesus Would Have Let Me Pick the Restaurant" worth hearing, and the rest of the song is nearly as clever). And no, there's no guitar work on Royal Blue that's up to a J. Mascis level of towering noise, but for someone traveling the rootsy side of the Nashville songwriting community, it's pretty clear Hiatt isn't afraid of laying in a noisy guitar solo or some carefully modulated feedback, and Beth Finney's electric guitar and Luke Schneider's pedal steel give this a good, scrappy texture that's a welcome switch from the spit and polish of most contemporary Nashville productions. Whether she's sorrowful, confused, or downright angry about her relationships with various men, Hiatt sounds honest and unafraid on Royal Blue's 12 songs, and she can rock out or lay back with equal conviction. Adam Landry's production does better by the music than it does by Hiatt's vocals, which are often a bit too deep in the mix, but the loose and open sound of this material is a step in the right direction, sounding like a more comfortable fit than the more pared-down tone of 2012's Let Down. Royal Blue makes it clear that Hiatt is a naturally gifted songwriter, and she's getting better at the separate but related art of making records.

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