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Nashville Scene Songs of Experience

Two singers act their age.

By Michael McCall

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Maturity isn't a popular trend in '90s music, even among older musicians. Like a middle-aged man trying to squeeze into a pair of trousers that no longer fit him, aging rockers continue to write about adolescent concerns long after they should have moved on to other subjects. Maybe there's something heroic about not bowing to the forces of time. As Pete Townsend advised the Rolling Stones when he announced their induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, "Don't try and grow old gracefully. It wouldn't suit you."

More often than not, though, old rock 'n' rollers end up looking like an over-the-hill boxer taking a merciless beating in the ring. There may be something valiant in the gesture, but the result is more sad than sweet.

Then there are those performers who use their years of experience to animate songs of cunning intelligence. Consider John Hiatt and Fred Eaglesmith, two singer-songwriters whose musical personae have allowed them to age gracefully. Both men's recent recordings sound effortless and sure-handed--these guys wield their smarts like expert craftsmen who know how to make corners fit with a minimum of sweat. As perfectly assembled as their songs are, however, they don't let their knowledge of craft stand in place of real emotion and effort. The closer you listen to their songs, the more your attention is rewarded.

Hiatt's fine Little Head and Eaglesmith's outstanding Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline don't sound at all alike, but they do share some traits: Both singers own distinctive voices; both have used their masterful road bands in the studio; both keep the proceedings musically stripped down and straightforward; and both share the classic songwriting virtues of economy and directness.

Hiatt's Little Head is an unusually lighthearted outing for him, although he continues to write some of the most strikingly effective ballads of modern times. Eaglesmith's album is the opposite: By turns violent, tender, and bitingly hilarious, Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline is a tour-de-force that underscores how music can be as visceral, as complex, and as humane as a good short story or a top-notch drama.

Hiatt's title song, a minor radio hit earlier this year, sets the tone for his collection. A clever look at how men's sexual obsessions often get them in trouble, it's an amusing tune aided by a funky, spare guitar riff and by Hiatt's witty couplets. "I'm dirty as a manhole cover," he sings at the opening, launching into a discussion of tight red sweaters, instincts that stink, and the problems that can come about when short-term satisfaction overcomes long-term consequences. "I'm just so easily led when my little head does the thinking," goes the chorus.

Much of the album is similarly playful, allowing Hiatt to prove that acting his age doesn't mean he has to be overly serious. "Pirate Radio" is a sweet soul rocker that recalls classic sounds of the '60s while gently railing against the uniformity of modern radio, and "My Sweet Girl" is an upbeat love song about nurturing a long-standing devotion with something as simple as a quiet walk in the park. But the album's best songs--"Graduated," "After All This Time," and "Far As We Go"--all deal with the joys and difficulties of sustaining passion in a good relationship.

Wiser than his years John Hiatt -- one singer who's not afraid of middle age

Hiatt is greatly assisted by his road band; as usual, he has proven particularly good at finding a rare jewel of a guitarist. Ex-Camper Van Beethoven string man David Immergluck, who has been with Hiatt for a couple of years now, repeatedly comes up with unforgettable guitar riffs and unexpected fills, thereby earning his place among such former Hiatt sidemen as Sonny Landreth and Kenny Greenberg. Little Head has been dismissed by some critics as lacking the depth of Hiatt's best work; in its way, though, the new album is just as enjoyable and just as solid. Having gotten past the difficulties and demons he confronted in the '80s, Hiatt now uses his music to reflect on his current life. It sounds as if he's determined to have some fun while considering the important questions, and his music makes both that joy and that thoughtfulness contagious.

Eaglesmith's songwriting is less personal than Hiatt's. The Canadian has been creating wonderful (and under-recognized) music for years, but Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline represents the crowning achievement thus far for a singer just now beginning to reach American audiences. His songs can be both surreal and ominously real: When he sings, "I've got seven shells in my six gun," the threat is unmistakable. Similarly, when he spits, "I like to drive 105, better hurry up if you want to catch me," he's clearly talking about more than a wild man's driving habits.

As such lines suggest, Eaglesmith commands an extraordinary sense of imagery. His latest album is rife with weighty metaphors: "Spookin' the Horses" describes a man's concern about his wife's sensual awakening, while "Water in the Fuel" tells of a traveling man who discovers that his wife has left him before he has a chance to get back home. The singer is just as good at being fearlessly yet poetically direct: "Drinking Too Much," an evocative duet with singer Lynn Miles, finds a man confronting his partner's alcohol problem, while "Time to Get a Gun" is a twisted slice of redneck humor about a hapless guy troubled by an outbreak of crime in his neighborhood. Singing with spitfire boisterousness over a rowdy arrangement, Eaglesmith barks, "Time to get a gun! That's what I been thinking. I could afford one if I did just a little less drinking." Now, there's an Americana sing-along if there ever was one--the difference is that Eaglesmith's song stands as geniune social commentary, while most No Depression bands cloak similar observations in smug irony.

Like his lyrics, Eaglesmith's acoustic-based songs are anything but delicate. His music tends to be driving and dark, but it's balanced with an off-kilter sense of abandon and absurdity. He has found a particularly fantastic road band in mandolinist Willie P. Bennett and bassist Ralph Schipper. In the studio, the band is fleshed out by longtime collaborators Kim Deschamps on steel guitar, Peter Van Alten on drums, and producer Scott Merritt on a variety of instruments.

Overall, Eaglesmith continues to develop into one of the most distinctive songwriters of modern times. He owns the roughneck honesty and earthy humanity of Steve Earle and the poignant humor of John Prine. With Lipstick, Lies & Gasoline, he joins the ranks of established performers like John Hiatt--talented artists who aren't afraid to act their age, or reflect it in their music.

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