`great mood, great songs

Walk On (Capitol)
John Hiatt

By Bob Bahr

Superficial listenings to Walk On find a music so comfortable, it's the aural equivalent of yer favorite pair of jeans. Listening to "You Must Go," one can almost feel the wood finish on the mandolin and smell the smoke from a snow-ringed chimney. It's as soothing as hot cocoa, and as familiar as a Beatles vocal harmony. Actually, Walk On sounds as if it were produced by George Martin at the tail end of his extended vacation in Tennessee. Hear it in the vocal harmonies and the tasteful orchestration of sounds. These are staples of modern pop, but they are exotica compared to Hiatt's rootsy approach.

Hiatt's twangy, distinctive voice is an acquired taste. He doesn't deal with explosive, topical subjects as does Bob Dylan — another accomplished croaker — but he makes up for it with excellent guitar and piano playing. This CD sounds gorgeous.

But it is not the production of Walk On that makes it a great record. It is Hiatt's songs. Delve deep into the tunes here, and you find gold every step of the way. Hiatt can write several different kinds of songs, songs about passion ("Cry Love"), funny faux country tunes ("Ethylene"), anthemic, big-strumming tunes ("Good as She Can Be," "Native Son," "Shredding the Document"), and best of all, rich, melancholy songs ("You Must Go," "The River Knows Your Name," and the vaguely ironic "Wrote It Down and Burned It"). Some are dense and elliptical, others are startling in their simplicity. Hiatt has a jaw-dropping ability to write songs.

But please don't make the mistake of viewing Walk On" as a singer-songwriter project in the strictly folk vein. Hiatt's backing band is culled from the Camper Van Beethoven camp, a. roots-tinged alternative group that has spawned Cracker, Monks Of Doom and other new projects.

From Cracker, Hiatt has borrowed Davey Faragher and Michael Urbano. Cracker fans will now know where the elegant country traits of their band come from. And somehow, mysteriously and subtly, Faragher, Urbano and David Immergluck have given a modern edge to Walk On.

The distinctive sound of the Wurlitzer, a touch of violin, and stellar backing vocalists such as Bonnie Raitt and Gary Louris & Mark Olson (of the Jayhawks) add effective accents to Hiatt's guitar-driven method.

What a complicated mix of things to produce a simple and seamless music. What a great record.

`career death blow