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Crossing Muddy Waters ()

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John Hiatt's 16th effort is a marked departure from his work of the previous 25 years, and a vast improvement over 1997's disappointing Little Head. Hiatt retrenched and recorded his first drummer-less, predominantly acoustic record for Vanguard. It's a sympathetic match and a smart move, since the company has a long, rich history working in the unplugged medium before it became trendy. The result is the most natural and relaxed John Hiatt album in years, and a welcome addition to his extensive catalog. With just a duo of acoustic multi-instrumentalists, Davey Faragher and David Immergluck (both longtime associates), Hiatt pulls out some of the most earnest, down-to-earth songs of his career. He sings like a man rejuvenated, totally at ease with his surroundings, and plays with the laid-back, homespun honesty that has infused his best work. Although some comical lyrical touches remain, the majority of the album is a sober reflection on lost love ("What Do We Do Now," the title track) and the resulting psychological scars. Hiatt's voice has never sounded better; its coarse edges sometimes straining for high notes works perfectly with this craggy, unpolished music. The mandolin is the most distinctive instrument here, and its brittle, trebly, crisp tone gives the disc an underlying tension, especially on the ballads that comprise the majority of the album. Heart-rending, sincere, stripped down yet multi-faceted, John Hiatt has taken a step forward by taking a small step back. Although not quite in a class with career highlights like Bring the Family or Slow Turning, Crossing Muddy Waters is a subtle treat and an album whose watercolor brush strokes paint a vibrant picture of stirring delicacy. ~ Hal Horowitz, Rovi Hide synopsis

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