There has always been a seriously dark side to John Hiatt's music; songs such as "Icy Blue Heart" or the sultry brooding of most of "Walk On," his vastly underrated 1995 release, are permeated with a sense of dread that his more humorous, upbeat material never entirely dispels. While it doesn't evoke the almost creepy atmospherics of those examples, "Crossing Muddy Waters" may be the most clear-eyed articulation to date of Hiatt's sense of reckoning. True to the wordplay of the title, the album is a bluesy, almost all-acoustic affair like something Taj Mahal might have made if he had a more melancholy streak that ponders various crises: the narrator's desertion by his wife, so distraught that she leaves her daughter behind, in the title track; the weary resignation of a couple at the end of their rope in "What Do We Do Now," told in the attenuated vocabulary of those who have already talked something to death; the unvarnished testimonial of the old-timey blues eulogy "Mr. Stanley."
To be sure, the mood is leavened by the jaunty opener, "Lincoln Town," and the gleeful abandon of "Gone" (Gone/like a Nixon file/gone, gone away/Gone/like my landlord's smile/gone, gone away"), but the overall atmosphere is one of resigned deconstruction. These are almost anti-sermons; there's a kind of fatalistic work ethic in evidence throughout, but in this lonesome congregation titles like "Take It Down," "Take It Back" and "Lift Every Stone" are exhortations to bear witness to unhappiness, not salvation. It takes the unabashed spiritualism of "God's Golden Eyes" and "Before I Go" at the album's conclusion for Hiatt to give himself at least a little more time before his final accounting. "Crossing Muddy Waters" is a strong, lean piece of work, and if it lacks the one or two standouts that would put it among Hiatt's very best, no one can accuse him of flinching.
"Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride"/Sam Bush
Those looking for some energetic, jam-oriented roots music with lots of good playing would be well advised to check out Sam Bush's latest CD. The mandolin virtuoso has long been a fixture at Telluride's annual bluegrass festival, and "Ice Caps" is a collection of those performances from over the years featuring Bush and a cast of equally gifted guest performers. Among the most notable of these are newgrass veterans Jerry Douglas on dobro (who gets a great ride on "Girl from the North Country") and especially banjoist Bela Fleck, whose inspired playing puts the instrument through paces that Earl Scruggs could hardly have imagined.
As for the band leader, well, it's Bush's party, and he'll do whatever he wants; luckily, he's a highly talented multi-instrumentalist whose flights of fancy are well worth indulging. He's not the greatest singer, but that's hardly an obstacle to appreciating his terrific mandolin and fiddle playing, especially on the bluegrass numbers; the enthusiasm he brings to the stage is palpable, and the audience goes crazy. But what's fun onstage sometimes meanders a bit on record: a few jams are overlong, and Bush's electric forays lack the nonpareil quality of his acoustic performances. Still, these folks set the bar pretty high, and a song list that includes a hell-bent-for-leather take on Bill Monroe's "Big Mon" alongside Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" is probably as good a way as any to sum up the contagiously good time clearly being had by all.