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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 35.0° F  Fog
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John Hiatt: Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns
(New West Records)

The songs on John Hiatt's new release are mostly standard Hiatt fare: mid-tempo ruminations on shitty small-town life; a slow song about a lost lover. The upbeat "Love That Girl" is uncomfortably close to Train's songwriting territory, but if you already like John Hiatt, you're not going to be disappointed by this record.

What's striking about the album, and what might make you fall in love with it, is Hiatt's changing voice. On these tracks, Hiatt doesn't shrink away from vocal challenges, even though the accumulation of years and miles can be hell for the voice of man who's pushing 60.

The best moments are when that voice betrays ragged edges, coming out in a rusty growl, then floating up to a clear, heartbreaking high note. The songs walk a strange line between menacing regret and sentimental hopefulness, and Hiatt's voice does the same. It's rare that a singer can make me scroll back on a track to hear a single phrase a second time, but I find myself wanting to hear lines again before the song was over.

Standout tracks are "Damn This Town," "All the Way Under" and the spooky "Down Around My Place." My favorite is "Til I Get My Loving Back." Hiatt sounds perfectly weary on the steel-heavy country tune.

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