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Published: 2012/09/26
by Brian Robbins

John Hiatt
Mystic Pinball

New West Records

Mystic Pinball marks a hat trick of three solid albums in a row by John Hiatt and his latest band, The Combo. 2010’s The Open Road was our introduction to stringmaster Doug Lancio and the killer rhythm section of Patrick O’Hearn (bass) and Kenneth Blevins (who also played drums with Hiatt’s longtime backers The Goners). By the time Dirty Jeans And Mudslide Hymns arrived last year, the trio had nestled nicely into Hiatt’s world, sounding as if they’d been there for a long, long time. And Mystic Pinball is more of the same.

Hiatt’s best stuff has always been a mix of grit, grease, and sweetness with the honey sharing equal billing with the gristle – which is just exactly what Mystic Pinball is all about. And Lancio, Blevins, and O’Hearn have once again proven themselves to be perfect co-pilots for excursions into Hiattland.

The boys waste no time in getting down to it: the opener “We’re Alright Now” begins with Hiatt chugging his electric guitar along in low gear, twin Cherry Bombs barking and a’ burbling. O’Hearn comes in right behind him with a tumble-down bass line that catches you by surprise (and then makes perfect sense); Blevins locks in with a lazy-assed, funky-as-hell beat – and they’re off. “Done pretty good now babe,” sings Hiatt. “Keeping the lights on this last little while/Nobody tryin’ to hunt us down for/Somethin’ we done wrong/Got no reason not to smile.” Lancio arrives on the scene just before Hiatt starts the next verse, his guitar sounding like it has a five-pack-a-day habit and proud of it. Combining Sonny Landreth’s virtuosity with the sort of “What’s he gonna do next?” eclectic approach that always made David Immergluck a fun guitar foil for Hiatt, Lancio is a master of doing big things subtly. By the time the chorus hits – handclaps and all – the deed is done. Welcome to another great John Hiatt album.

While one’s immediate mental image of Hiatt might have him brandishing an acoustic guitar, he’s always been capable of doling out cool and crunchy electric rhythm riffs that would make Keith Richards grin. (Think back to 1988’s “Paper Thin”, for instance.) Mystic Pinball is positively prickly with six-stringed hooks, from the barely-contained skwonk of “Bite Marks” to the raspy happy-go-lucky churn of “You’re All The Reason I Need”. Fans of Patterson Hood’s twisted murder ballads will delight in the unfortunate circumstances of “Wood Chipper” – right down to the mysterious grocery list Hiatt recites at the end: “Funyuns” … “orange drink” … Jesus. (This one’s gonna be a killer live.) The whole band slams into Howlin’ Wolf mode for “My Business”, working that bad-assed groove to its last honk at the fade. And “One Of The Damn Days” is the blues, the whole blues, and nothing but the blues – and if you have any doubts, guest Ron Dziubla will blow them away with his sax.

There are also plenty of reach-for-your-baby’s-hand-and-give-it-a-squeeze moments on Mystic Pinball: “No Wicked Grin” is a bit of love that might be weary but is real as real can be (listen to O’Hearn’s absolutely perfect double bass work), while “I Know How To Lose You” pays sweet tribute to a lost love. “I Just Don’t Know What To Say” surveys the wreckage of a situation that the singer doesn’t want to crawl out of. (It’s great to hear Hiatt at the piano; and even though the credits don’t mention it, I’m guessing that’s Lancio doling out bits of gentle mando – along with his ache-filled lead work.)

There’s a recipe to a good John Hiatt album: a mix of smarts, humor, fiction, and truth – bound with layers of bluesy rock and flannel-shirted soul. Mystic Pinball is proof that Hiatt and The Combo have that recipe nailed, pulling it off without ever sounding formulaic.

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