Wednesday, July 9, 2014

John Hiatt VS. The Black Keys

I thought I'd get right on the horse with a few words about the recently released "Turn Blue" from The Black Keys and "Terms Of My Surrender," John Hiatt's new one due out on the 15th of July. I listened to both yesterday. The Hiatt, twice actually.

I've liked the Black Keys since their 2002 debut "The Big Come Up." The duo always felt like a less annoying and more effective White Stripes. Raw blues at the core, but cannier and more musical. The band peaked with 2010's "Brothers," a psychedelic, soulful trip to Muscle Shoals that never abandons the rawness of the band's earlier achievements.

John Hiatt's 1987 masterpiece "Bring The Family" is one of my favorite records of all time. But unlike Hiatt's devotees, I do not swear by every one of his 263 records. I like a lot of them, but I find the period from 1993's "Perfectly Good Guitar" to 2005's "Master Of Disaster" incredibly uneven, with 2003's "Beneath This Gruff Exterior" as the only true stand-out. But then came 2008's "Same Old Man," and the return of Hiatt's mojo and his last two "Dirty Jeans & Mudslide Hymns" and "Mystic Pinball" are now right up there after "Bring The Family" as faves.

What's the point of comparing the Black Keys new one to John Hiatt's new one? Isn't it apples and oranges, you might say?

Yes...and no.

"The Terms Of My Surrender" is the closest Hiatt has gotten to a straight blues record. While it's not completely barebones, the songs are basic. Acoustic guitar and harmonica at the core, but by no means an acoustic record, Hiatt's new one offers some of his best lyrics in the simplest setting. Songs like the country-folk of the"Wind Don't Have To Hurry" and the front porch strumming of "Nothing I Love" are both taken to a slightly higher most of the songs here... by adding just the right brushstrokes of backing vocals, or hammond organ, or swampy drum grooves. Just when you think you've been served a Howlin Wolf retread, Hiatt and his band surprises you in the best of ways, like on the gospel shuffle "Old People," with my new fave couplet:

"Old people are pushy/they don't have much time/they'll shove you at the coffee shop/And cut ahead on the buffet line."

It's not all tongue in cheek, as Hiatt can still break your heart, as he has done so many times in his career. This time it's in the album closer "Come On Home."

Oh yeah...The Black Keys.

From the opening seconds of "Turn Blue," I was hooked. It didn't matter that I was listening to a rip of "Breathe" by Pink Floyd. I liked what I was hearing from the Black Keys. 20 minutes later, I was scratching my head, wishing a song would start, because at this point, The Black Keys have given nothing but texture. Swirling sounds, reverb, whooshing and whirring, lots of bells and whistles, but basically, not much else. This is the very problem I have with so many bands of the last twenty years: records released that lack songs and only reflect their record collections.

I would have loved to hear the Black Keys take on Pink Floyd, at least in sound and spirit, but the difference between "Dark Side Of The Moon" and "Turn Blue" is the difference between shooting a bullet and throwing one.

Now, hold on! "Turn Blue" isn't necessarily all about sounding like Pink Floyd. On the contrary, it's really only the opener. This doesn't matter, because everything else on the record sounds like something else. The only thing that remains consistent is the lack of melody. The record is a bore. Too much of a lot of nothing.

The Black Keys have been getting a ton of press as of late, both as a band and individually, with Patrick Carney spewing his mind about anything and everyone from Justin Bieber to Jack White, and Dan Auerbach producing the new record from Lana Del Rey.

John Hiatt is just doing his thing. Again.

If Hiatt could have borrowed a little hype from the Keys and the Keys could have borrowed a little restraint from Hiatt, maybe "Terms Of My Surrender" would end up all over magazine covers and "Turn Blue" might have been more substantial.

Buy the Hiatt! It's a keeper.

Let me know what you're hearing that I am not, if you listened to "Turn Blue," because what I heard isn't calling me back.


buzzbabyjesus said...

I saw John Hiatt open for Hunter/Ronson and I have never forgiven him for writing, "The Negroes Were Dancing".

Ken D said...

The Black Keys might be the victim of unreasonably high expectations given the greatness of their last two albums. I give them credit for at least trying some new directions (maybe too many new directions for one album) even if they're not all winners. I like "Turn Blue" and disagree that it's all texture and no melody. Still, I can't argue with anyone who thinks the record might be better credited to "Danger Mouse featuring The Black Keys."
John Hiatt, on the other hand, comes with little or no expectations. He'll make a good, polished record every time out and if this one is a lot better than that I'll seek it out. And I really like that cover photo (am I the only one who still cares about this? Well, I'm a graphic designer so it's a hard habit to break...)
And re album graphics, the Black Keys' sleeve has a folded-up insert that I was expecting to have notes or lyrics or photos or something other than just a larger version of the blue and red swirl on the outside.
That's it... a true waste of trees. (Hmm, you think maybe its lack of content is a metaphor for the album?)

Ken D said...

NYC area folks: Hiatt headlining a free show at Brookfield Place (formerly The World Financial Center) on July 17. Robert Cray is also on the bill.
Note that this year although it's free, tickets are required. Details at:


buzzbabyjesus -- I'm not sure what to make of your comment. Are you saying John Hiatt is a racist or that "The Negros Were Dancing" is an unforgivably crappy song or ...

Slug Line might not be my favourite John Hiatt record but I don't believe for a second he is racist and the record (and that song) in no way diminish my admiration for John Hiatt and his work.

Am I reading too much or missing something?

Anonymous said...

What I'm listening to that's reasonably new:

Somewhere Else - Lydia Loveless

Radio Sweetheart - Sarah Borges

Common Ground - Dave & Phil Alvin

The Boat that Carries Us - Peter Himmelman

Another Self Portrait - Bobby D.

All good and worthy albums.

Allan R.

William Repsher said...

Re: John Hiatt. A few months ago, I was watching American Gigolo, and there's a scene where Richard Gere's character walks into a record store. The song playing in the background really caught my ear. Wait a minute ... I know that voice ... sure enough, closing credits revealed the song to be "Take Off Your Uniform." Back when he was getting pigeon-holed as the American Elvis Costello.

Bring the Family and Walk On really did it for me - otherwise, I find him prone to great songs on every album, but not whole albums that go all the way.

On a higher shelf than The Black Keys, who aren't bad. I tend to think of them exactly as I do of Jack White/White Stripes: artists capable of swinging for the fences, but never do. I keep hoping each album will be either artist/band putting it all together and finally releasing something even approaching prime Zep.

It's songwriting, more than anything. You can have great influences, even a great sound and feel, but if the songs aren't there ... you're just pissing in the wind.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I apologize for not being clear on this as it could be interpreted a number of ways, many of which I'd be appalled at endorsing. I have no idea what "The Negroes Were Dancing" is even about. The title as a refrain did it all for me.
I was in The Santa Monica Civic waiting for Hunter/Ronson to come on('79,possibly '80), when John Hiatt took the stage. I knew who he was, they were pushing "Slug Line" in my local Liquorice Pizza,and I'd already had a negative reaction to the new wave poser on the cover.
I found his performance so irritating that by the time he got to "The Negroes Were Dancing" I was looking for something to throw at him. I've never gotten over this terrible first impression.
I know he's a more than competent musician and writer, but I don't care.

buzzbabyjesus said...

"artists capable of swinging for the fences, but never do. I keep hoping each album will be either artist/band putting it all together and finally releasing something even approaching prime Zep"

That is why I give them the time of day.
A fun topic could be which indie artists have come closest?
Big Star is an obvious one. Who Else?

Anonymous said...

I really like the new Black Keys, but it does sound more like a Danger Mouse offering, which is not bad, just not what many of us may want out of them. Can't wait for the new Hiatt. The new Rival Sons is great and they are a band who seem to know who they are and go out and kick ass each time. Great fun!


peabody nobis said...

I must admit that I'm puzzled by the notion that an artist is "capable of swinging for the fences, but never do". It reminds me of the old adage, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach".
It seems to me that we have a helluva lot of "teachers" nowadays, artists with the physical attributes and capability of playing instruments, but little ingenuity or talent for song composition. The music is technically flawless, but quickly and easily forgotten.
As for what I'm listening to:
R.E.M. Unplugged-Has there been a better rock vocalist in the last 30 years than Michael Stipe? True, his lyrics were sometimes indecipherable, but the guy had heart. The other guys were great as well. Helluva band, in their prime.
Michael Jackson's Greatest Hits-I resisted this guy when I was younger because of all the hype, but talent is undeniable. His heartfelt performance of "Ben", possibly his strongest vocal ever, makes you forget it's about a mouse.
Willie Nelson, Band of Brothers-I love you, Willie, but just stop. The voice just isn't there anymore.
Roy Orbison, Mystery Girl 25th Anniversary-I loved this album 25 years ago. They added some demos and re-released it. The additions don't do much for me, but if they get Roy's magnificent voice out to a new audience, I can live with them. A helluva artist, and man.

Anonymous said...

I had the same reaction to the Black Keys album.
It was all going by in a haze, floating over me with nothing holding on until the very last song. Gotta Get Away. Great cut. Although by the time I got to it, I wrote the album off as a dud.
I'm just hearing the new John Hiatt today. And it's love at first listen. Yes, I am one of those long time fans who have been loving his records for decades, but he's been on an intimidating winning streak of late. He manages to keep the elements fans have come to expect while adding little surprises.
Maybe I'm just overly excited having just finished listening, but this might his best album yet.
Loving the fact that he's never lost his sense humor after all these years.
Old People is an instant classic. Randy Newman should cover it.


Anonymous said...

Hey Buzzbabyjesus,
I'm right with you.
That's exactly why I stopped donating to the United Negro College Fund.