John Hiatt is someone I got into a bit at the start of the millennium. Truth be told, I drifted away from his stuff; very rarely listening to much at all these days. So, I can hardly even call myself a fan. However, I do like to revisit a handful of albums and, whether I buy them or not, I do like to catch up with his new releases. Anyhoo, the exception is Bring The Family. I like this one an awfy lot. So much, in fact, that I have two copies. Both the A&M and Demon pressings. Why? Well, they have different covers. I picked up the A&M release a few years back when browsing the racks in Oxfam. The Demon release came not so long ago when I spotted it cheap. A near mint copy for £3. Despite having it, I liked the cover a whole lot. Plus, it has a sheet complete with lyrics. That’s the kinda thing I’m after. We’re all after, amaright?
Anyhoo, what do I like about it? Well, Bring The Family is one of those brilliant spontaneous albums that come along every now and then. Recorded in just four days with the help of Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner, there were no rehearsal shenanigans and it relied pretty much on the chemistry and understanding of the folks involved (Nick Lowe apparently never heard Memphis in the Meantime when he recorded it). You can hear the room and the warmth of the instruments. In fact, the spontaneity of it all means that no-one ever overplays or overpowers the actual songs. Nor do the songs sound overworn or overplayed. The simplicity of the whole things allows Hiatt to be as frank as he wants to be. I mean, the fact that the songs more than match each of the players here says an awfy lot. I honestly can’t overstate how great a collection of songs this is. I don’t think there’s a poor one among them.
Anyhoo, here’s Hiatt with a bunch of friends revealing more about himself than he maybe had before. You’ll find self-reflection, faith, and love on the menu; all the good stuff that allows artists to not only express themselves but exorcise demons (or angels).
Memphis in the Meantime has a great shuffle and really starts the album off brilliantly. I can’t articulate just how much I love this one. It makes me smile and makes me dream of hitting the road and selling mangos. There’s a real groove here and one of my favourite lyrics on the album when Hiatt sings “I like country music and I like mandolins, but right now I need a telecaster through a Vibro-lux turned up to ten”. Hiatt’s done with Nashville and country music, folks (like a whole bunch of other great musicians).
That groove continues through Alone In The Dark and Thing Called Love. Cooder’s guitar buzzes and stings on Alone In The Dark while Hiatt sings lines like “I rub my nose in it, babe, til the roses smell just like death”, while Thing Called Love is a song about the strength of love and having faith when things are tough. And, as you can imagine, that’s something of a recurring theme here; especially on the brilliant Have a Little Faith in Me.
See, the thing about Have a Little Faith in Me is that it immediately sounds familiar. Quite possibly because it immediately resonates. We’ve all been there, right? Asking that our better halves be patient or have a little faith that we can do something better. Be it making better decisions when drinking (like don’t drink so much, or get a taxi home instead of walking 300 miles when you missed the last train) or suchlike. It’s a highlight, though. Cause here is that cry for faith at it’s purest and most desperate. Hiatt solo on the piano and, well, the sheer emotion and vulnerability always gets me. Despite the troubles and mistakes or whatever, he gives love unconditionally and is seeking just a bit of understanding. C’mon, lady! Cut the guy some slack!
Wait, Jim! You haven’t mentioned anything about Lipstick Sunset! I know – that song annihilates my soul. Cooder’s slightly overdriven slide guitar is gorgeous and Hiatt sounds utterly broken. Perfect. That’s all I’ll say.
Thank You Girl kicks the second side off in similar style to Memphis In The Meantime. It rocks and rolls and locks into a loose groove. It’s a clear thank you to the woman who has helped pull Hiatt from the darkness (she cut him some slack, after all!). Again, Hiatt’s words are brilliant and the way he delivers them… so good. Ry Cooder also plays a blinder here, by the way (again!); that buzzing guitar cutting through and the underplayed solo is a nice refrain. The track makes Tip of My Tongue a bit easier to take, cause man, that’s a downer.
Like Lipstick Sunset, Tip of My Tongue is one of the saddest songs I know. Again, it’s one a lot of folks could certainly relate to (though maybe not to the same extreme). We say things that we don’t always mean. Or they come out wrong cause we’re not the best in certain situations. We’re left with regret regardess and, well, just sometimes there’s no taking those words back… and naturally the regret lingers. Just as it does here (“I’d take it back, but time won’t let me. No, time just takes you further away”).
Moving swiftly on, the guitar intro to Your Dad Did lets us know we’re in for a good(ish) time and the song itself highlights just how great a lyricist Hiatt is. You’ll hear why. A warning to the heir of the complacent king. Something to consider when you drift through each day, anyway. But, it’s right toe-tapping cheery. Stood Up is more of that wonderful ‘love saves’ sentiment. Hiatt sounds a bit like Van Morrison and there’s certainly a similar blue-eyed soul vibe around the song as Hiatt recounts losing the shackles that bound him (“Now they gave last call for alcohol and no one has to carry me home. You see, I only work here now man, my drinking days are long gone”). Great stuff.
Learning How To Love You is as perfect a side closer as Have a Little Faith in Me. The there’s perhaps a little less raw emotion, but the message is much the same. Love isn’t an easy ride – it takes some work and we’re always learning.
The whole thing is emotional, witty and, most of the time, powerfully moving. As I’ve maybe already suggested, I guess it’s one we all can relate to. Whether or not we lived the life of Mr Hiatt here isn’t the point… the point is that we’ve been in a position where we’ve reflected on where we’ve been, where we’re headed and what we learned along the way. We can relate to lasting love and the hard work involved.
The lack of label involvement during the recording is likely the reason the production sounds so timeless (Hiatt was without a label). There’s no sheen on any of this and I honestly think the album is better for it. It’s warm and inviting, even when there’s a powerful intensity.
Anyhoo, sorry for going on a bit. Bottom line is, this is a great album. Sure the subject matter is weighty, but it never really feels heavy. Perhaps cause it’s littered with humour and wit. Even at the lowest points there’s something that can make you smile or, dare I say chuckle.