John Hiatt released his third album, “Two Bit Monsters,” 41 years ago. He hooked me like barbed wire coated in nicotine with it. Hiatt looked like a buzzed James Dean in the cover photo, and the irresistible rock and roller “Pink Bedroom” made him seem like an American Elvis Costello. But that ended up being just the tail end of his second phase. Hiatt became a chameleon in rock and roots music, and one of our premier songwriters with an uncanny grip on imagery and irony. Stars and up-and-comers alike in country, rock, blues, you name it, regularly record John Hiatt’s songs, and it’s always a big deal when he releases a new album of his own.
“Leftover Feelings” is a real big deal. Hiatt’s 25th studio album lands squarely among his absolute best. All milestone John Hiatt albums feature not only incredible songs, but a band a cut or three above, playing them. Add the Jerry Douglas Band to the list. With Hiatt on guitar, they’re a quintet getting to the heart of each song. Douglas produced the album at Nashville’s RCA Studio B, the birthplace of some 250 Elvis tunes alone, besides plenty of other King-sized musical history. The intrinsic vibe of the place can be heard the instant Douglas plucks the opening lines to “Long Black Electric Cadillac” on his Dobro. Similar to Sonny Landreth’s intro to Hiatt’s classic “Tennessee Plates,” it sets up a loose rockabilly beat for Hiatt to go to town about green-mindedness in.
“Mississippi Phone Booth” follows, the band settling into a loping, transfixing country blues. Hiatt wrote the song about a guy shit-faced late at night outside a gas station, pleading from inside a box for redemption and a ride home. Hiatt’s singing voice is devoid of age and brimming with wisdom. Douglas illuminates every one of his words with sizzling sparks. Hiatt’s own pre-sobriety days, decades ago, inspired the song, and the finality in his line “Tell Jesus I’m out of dimes” connects with a potentially life-altering impact. “The Music is Hot” then eschews that pain, and slides into a breezy swing that radiates the happiness of a good family life in the country in the old days, when working hard, raising kids, and dancing on air to the transistor radio were what mattered. Again, Douglas stuns, picking delicate spider webs of notes that perfectly highlight all the emotional wistfulness.
Two songs could actually be considered “leftovers” because Hiatt’s recorded them previously. “All the Lilacs in Ohio” was a strident rocker on his 1999 album, “The Tiki Bar is Open.” Here it beams with the sunshine of the dream that the otherwise morose story tells of. “Little Goodnight,” first cut around the time of “Perfectly Good Guitar” in 1993, gets stripped to its essence here, its cheery melody perfect for the story that every parent will laugh out loud at.
Therein lies another aspect that makes “Leftover Feelings” a landmark John Hiatt album. There’s relevance in the songwriting, and an urgency in the playing. These songs matter, and these five men (and one lady in Carmella Ramsey on backing vocals) make it sound that way. Everything clicked, and the music is hot indeed. John Hiatt & the Jerry Douglas Band are a match made in heaven.
- John Hiatt & the Jerry Douglas Band
- ‘Leftover Feelings’
- Label: New West Records
- Release: May 21, 2021