even if John Hiatt's mug weren't on the cover of his new album, it wouldn't take Lt. Columbo to figure out that this 10-song collection is the Indianapolis-born singer-songwriter's handiwork. On "Little Head," Hiatt shows once again that he's as American as pickup trucks and Cal Ripken Jr. -- and just as predictable. The problem is, predictable can be pretty boring.
Hiatt's 14th album, "Little Head" was recorded live in the studio with an all-star lineup calling themselves the Nashville Queens (David Immergluck on guitar, Davey Faragher on bass, Gary Ferguson on drums and Peter Holsapple on organ and piano). It's still Hiatt whose fingerprints are all over this album, but his heart is hard to find.
Since his brilliant trilogy of albums about addiction recovery and the joys of discovering family life -- 1987's "Bring the Family," 1988's "Slow Turning" and 1990's "Stolen Moments" -- Hiatt has struggled for a new direction. In 1992, he joined Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner to form Little Village, a power combo that lasted through only one self-titled album. In 1993, Hiatt played garage grunge on the guitar-powered hit "Perfectly Good Guitar." But he has yet to find that direction, and on "Little Head" he's fumbling for new ways to repackage old ideas.
Still, there are some great musical moments here: the opening organ on "Woman Sawed in Half," the brief guitar solo on "Runaway," the Tower of Power-like horns on "Sure Pinocchio." But for the most part, Hiatt and the Nashville Queens offer nothing flashy, preferring instead to play solid American roots rock. That's no crime -- it's just that you get the feeling you've heard all of this before on one Hiatt album or another.
The album opens with the title track, a bluesy dick-joke ditty (about, of course, the little head doing all of the thinking) reminiscent of the playful sexual innuendo of Little Village's "Solar Sex Panel." Next is "Pirate Radio," the obligatory ain't-rock-'n'-roll-grand-when-we're-driving-down-the-highway anthem. It's a giddy hybrid of Memphis and Motown, "Rock 'n' Roll Music" and "Long Live Rock." There are also a couple of standard Hiatt heartbreakers about lost love, "Runaway" and "Far As We Go."
What little excitement "Little Head" holds is found in Hiatt's acerbic lyrics. On "Sure Pinocchio," he sings, "You put me in a box/like God and his uncle/Smellin' like old gym socks/lookin' like Artie Garfunkel." Even if you can't figure out what he means, it sure sounds funny. He goes for laughs again on the bridge to the upbeat rocker "Feelin' Again" as he and his backup singers croon, "Whoa-ooo, feelings, whoa-ooo feelings ..." mocking in a new way the most mocked song in pop music history. Like Elvis Costello, to whom he was often compared early in his career, Hiatt is more of a phrase-maker than a writer of complete songs. Unfortunately, these phrases are mere splashes of color in what's an otherwise strangely lifeless album.